Road to Technology Transformation

The reality is that technology is advancing at an exponential rate and this means that businesses need to be able to adapt.

Not even a month ago I had an interesting conversation with my 11 year old daughter. As we were getting into the car I pulled a CD from my bag and as I was getting ready to put it into the car’s CD player my daughter asked me a simple question: “What is that?” 

It took me a few seconds to answer as I was trying to figure out if she was serious. “Surely you must know what this is – it’s a CD.” My comment was returned with a blank stare and the conversation that followed centered on “Why would anyone use that when you can download all your songs?” 

This made me think about several things, but one thing that I keep coming back to is that she and her friends will be entering the workforce in the next 8 to 10 years. This raises several interesting questions. Are today’s companies ready to meet the expectations of the younger generations in terms of the technology they use? How can a business take steps today to ensure that there is a long term benefit and alignment with upcoming technological advances? 

The reality is that technology is advancing at an exponential rate and this means that businesses need to be able to adapt at the same rate. As an example, let’s look at the history of hard drive storage. In 1956 IBM introduced a hard drive that was the size of a refrigerator, weighed more than a ton, and it had a capacity of 5MB – roughly the size of a single song. It took us another 50 years to get to the point where hard drives were small and built into personal computers but were still on average about 100MB in size. However, 10 years later hard drives are now built into everything – from a key chain to a pen, and can hold terabytes of data. Can you imagine what next 10 years will bring? 

How can businesses keep up with the rapid advances in technology and growing expectations of the young adults that are going to be entering the workforce in the next few years? Like with most complex issues, there is no “silver bullet”, no guaranteed solution. However, there are certain best practices and rules that can be followed to ensure that businesses will be in position to adopt the latest technology and take advantage of it. These practises focus on “how” rather than “what” because “what” keeps changing from year to year. 

Rule #1 – Vision Objection

In order to achieve any goal we have to be able to visualize it. This critical first step is often the one that is the most problematic and there are two reasons why. First, it is often overlooked and companies simply start to implement the best and latest technology only to find years later that they have gone down the wrong path and that it’s very costly and difficult to make a correction. The second reason is that even when companies do try to set the technology vision they are faced with an overwhelming number of options and don’t have the right resources to help with the long term technology strategy and vision. 

What is the best way to set the company’s technology strategy for the next 5 years? It comes down to people. For a smaller company it may mean relying on outside consultants and for larger businesses it may mean relying on its in-house CTO/CIO. In either case it is absolutely critical that those responsible for the technology vision and strategy also have expert level knowledge and understanding of the business. Without this ability to bridge the gap between the vision for how technology will be best leveraged, the business will never be able to take the full advantage of technology and there will always be a disconnect between the needs and the capabilities. 

Rule #2 – Documented Plan

The simple but important task of documenting the strategy and vision shouldn’t be underestimated. Taking the strategic vision and creating a written plan forces all parties involved to think about schedules and budgets. This often leads to small but important changes to the plan and ensures that there is good alignment between what’s theoretically possible and what the company can afford to do. 

It is also important to keep in mind that this documented plan is not a detailed project plan that outlines the next 5 years of tasks and activities. Rule #3 explains why something like that shouldn’t even be attempted. The plan is simply a high level outline of all types of technology that go into establishing a solid base for future growth. It covers things such as phone systems, infrastructure, staffing, software licensing, whether the company should be hosting the hardware or considering outsourcing, and should a company be buying, leasing or combination of the two? 

This plan needs to be thought of and written as a framework. A high level road map that clearly outlines the strategic vision, but is flexible enough to adapt to new technologies and new business directions. 

Rule #3 – Phased Approach

Too many companies embark on a “strategic technology transformation” that will take 5 years to complete and the first implementation of the new technology platform is in year 3. This rarely ever works out as planned. There are several simple reasons why. For starters, the technology itself is changing and moving so fast that what was a perfectly reasonable plan at the onset of the project may be completely obsolete by year 3. Secondly, to create a detailed 5 year implementation plan will take at least 6 months – this is a huge drain on the resources and since the business doesn’t stop during that time, additional dedicated project staff need to be brought on board. This raises what is guaranteed to be already a hefty price that comes with any 5 year project. 

Instead, it is easier and simpler to think of the road to transformation as a series of small journeys. The best example for this comes from a remarkable story of Colin and Julie Angus. They set on an amazing adventure with a goal to circumnavigate the globe using exclusively human power. The journey took almost two years to complete and it was filled with unexpected and unknown obstacles that included rowing across the Atlantic in a wooden rowboat and facing two hurricanes. 

I had a chance to meet Colin and Julie, and listening to their stories of how they prepared and how they handled the unforeseen obstacles made me think that there is an uncanny similarity between what they had to go through and what a typical business may have to go through during the technology transformation project. One thing that Colin and Julie made very clear is that there was no way that they could have ever thought of all possible issues that they may face and prepare for them in advance. But what they could do is have a road map and milestones that ensured they were on the right track. 

The road to technology transformation is similar and no less treacherous, but having a good strategic plan and vision that is used to establish a documented framework makes it possible to implement a series of smaller projects that in the end will take the company through the transformation and have it emerge better and more successful than what was ever thought possible.

Rule #4 – Do not reinvent

There are many sayings that convey the same message – there is no need to reinvent something that already exists and works. The whole modern society is based on building on what previous generations created and Sir Isaac Newton famously said “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” 

Good strategic vision takes this into consideration and is based on taking the best possible technologies available and combining them in new creative ways to maximize the value they bring. 

Too many companies go down the path of developing and creating their own custom software. This is something that is not surprising and often happens with companies that are big enough to have internal IT resources. While there are exceptions that are justified any such project should be carefully considered and the company should carefully review the needs and existing solutions before embarking on a custom software project. These projects are often underestimated and result in missed deadlines, budget over-runs and eventually with a software package that is difficult to support and always two steps behind the current technology.

Rule #5 – Review, Adapt and Correct

One of the most important benefits of having a written framework and implementing through series of smaller projects is that it’s possible to stop and reflect. This is an absolutely critical step on the road to transformation and should be done after every implementation and no less than once per quarter. 

Technology changes, business goals change and people change – without being able to stop and reflect on the road already taken it would not be possible to reach the end goal of a technology transformation and still be aligned with the business needs.

While the road of technology transformation can be seen as difficult and scary it is also a great one. Companies that dare to take this journey and follow some basic and simple principles come out of it transformed not only on the technology side but the business side as well and, just like life, technological transformation is about the journey, not the destination.