With the modern ubiquity of digital technologies and automation, the popularity of remote work and a tech-savvy consumer population, businesses are increasingly operating in a virtual world. They’re under pressure to adapt – and get ahead of the competition. What does that mean for business transformation?

To find out, we hosted a panel of experienced Transformation Directors who work to execute large-scale transformations for businesses around the world.

The transformation landscape

Traditional business transformation is about changing how a company conducts their business. Digital transformation uses technology to change or implement processes or experiences, both for employees within the company and for external customers or clients. This is often in response to the desire to meet changing external pressures, like market forces or client expectations.

One panellist said: “For me, a typical business transformation tends to start with the numbers. A company wants to change their performance trajectory, for example, so they need to change the operating model. With digital transformation, the motivators come from lots of different places.”

Expectations also often vary between the two. Traditional transformations are sometimes sold to the business as “once you’ve done this, you never have to do it again,” explained one panellist. There’s no guarantee that a digital-hinged transformation will be “one and done”.

Nevertheless, in today’s market, one panellist wondered if perhaps the distinctions have become blurred – that sometimes digital transformation is just part of business transformation. “Digital transformation is not an aim in itself. The digital world enables and drives business change. Companies don’t want to use technology just for the sake of using it, like getting a new mobile phone. They want to do jobs faster or better. The business is always at the heart of what they want.”

What does the rise of digital mean for clients and Transformation Directors?

As the sophistication and prevalence of digital technology increases, so too does client ambition, according to the panel.

“Digital has been a real accelerator,” said one panellist. “And not just for digitally native companies – it’s even rocketing up the agenda of traditional companies. People are more ambitious about what digital means for them, and for operating in a remote world. They’re more digitally savvy than they were even a few years ago, and that’s exciting.”

This offers more opportunities for Transformation Directors and, at the same time, requires some transformation of their own practices.

“Clients are pushing us harder to deliver more capability, faster,” said one panellist. “We’re finding ourselves breaking the programme up into incremental blocks so we can have incremental delivery. Previously, with a large-scale transformation, we’d have an understanding of our end point. We just can’t map out our whole journey now because we know our requirements will change.”

Increases in and reductions of demands

On the one hand, the demands of and pressures on transformation teams have increased. “We’re putting more on the table for clients,” said one panellist. “They’re asking for it, and we’re able to deliver it. But it is a bit of a stretch. We’ve found that the work is bigger in scope, faster in scale. I’m bridging that gap with a strong PMO (Project Management Office), but it has completely changed the way I work and the way the transformation team works.”

On the other hand, remote working has lessened the demands of physical presence and cost. “You can do it from your home office and drop in and out, which has been brilliant,” said one panellist. “It’s sped the process up and sent costs massively down, so we’re thinking about doing more virtually moving forwards.”

Remote working and transformation

Remote working is also having an impact on how Transformation Directors work. “We’ve had to come up with new ways to organise our teams, new ways to communicate,” said one panellist. “We are moving about twice as fast as we were before the pandemic. It got folks to take the hard step and make the changes. It’s really changed attitudes more than anything else.”

Another panellist agreed, adding: “In the past 20 years, the prevailing opinion was that you had to be close to the business – in the office – in order to deliver a transformation programme. We now know we can deliver large transformation programmes with a remote team. The difference is you need a stronger PMO, you need to be better prepared, and you need all the different partners to share and participate, which is not often the case.”

Remote working has opened the eyes of many panellists “in terms of the potential to work differently,” and it has changed the attitudes of clients. “My client is more demanding of me, more imaginative,” explained one. “Barriers have been dropped so the scope of what they’re asking for is bigger. And the level of commercial aggression with which they want things delivered has increased.”

What are the drawbacks of remote working?

One attendee summed up the panel’s general concern: “We’ve been more efficient, but we’re not as innovative.” The panel agreed that, for the things they know how to do, it’s been going well. They just miss the ability to get everyone together in a room when there are problems – and stay there until they have a solution.

A strong case was made for the use of collaborative whiteboard software, like Microsoft OneNote, to overcome this challenge. “It went about 70-80% of the way to addressing the problems we had. There is some fantastic tech out there.”

How agile can you be during the transformation process at the moment?

“We try to be agile, but clients are saying that we need to be faster, bigger, better and virtual on top of everything else,” said one panellist. “Can we deliver all of the business transformation using an agile approach? Probably not. But we can try, and we can be pragmatic. You have to understand that the plan is not written in stone.”

That can be challenging though, with several panellists citing the speed at which programmes move. “When you’re going a hundred miles an hour, you can’t stop to review things – you’ve just got to keep going,” said one panellist.

On the flip side, you can also encounter moments – whether with clients or System Integrators – when it’s tough to shake people out of very fixed ways of working, even if those ways don’t actually work. Sometimes the best you can hope for is a “compromised pragmatic decision,” said one panellist.

There is a sense that “you can’t be too rigid,” as one panellist put it. “It’s impossible to predict everything – something or someone will mess up, or you’ll encounter something new that you’ve never seen before, but you’ll make it work.”

Nevertheless, sometimes you have to get clients to stop and take the longer term view. To “look at what comes afterwards,” explained one panellist. “You’ve got to get them to think about whether they really want to do it that way. It may be faster now, but they have to live with it later.”

Client perceptions of value often shift and change as they move through the different stages of the transformation process. Ultimately, however, getting to a place of consistency is vital. “It’s about implementing consistent processes so we can get consistent data – and engage consumers in a consistent fashion,” explained one. “No matter the journey, it’s about data – and using it to make better decisions and drive the business forward.”

BIE hosts regular meetings for Transformation Directors to share experiences and discuss challenges they all face, if you would like to understand more or participate in the discussion, please contact Simon Cordrey or James Wilson.

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