Take A Lesson From Bismarck: The Realpolitik Of Digital Transformation
Digital transformation may be the most overused, poorly understood and ambiguous term in today’s business vocabulary. It’s been used to refer to the implementation of collaboration tools such as Slack and Zoom, the use of software bots to automate back office operations and even to upgrades of conventional ERP systems. It’s become one of those classic terms in IT jargon—like cloud computing or Agile development—that can mean just about anything and everything you want it to mean. To be perfectly honest, IT leaders have discovered that they can wrap a digital transformation “bow” around any set of planned initiatives and present it to their business partners as their company’s digital transformation plan.
The mania for digital transformation displayed within today’s business press would lead you to believe that CIOs have entered a golden age in which any initiative they choose to bring forward will obtain immediate funding and executive sponsorship. They simply need to go shopping within the “candy store” of new technologies such as machine learning, robotic process automation, predictive analytics, zero trust security, serverless computing or blockchain ledgers and select the tool or tools that could have the greatest impact on their company’s bottom line.
In reality, things are not that simple. Major IT initiatives that result in transformational changes in business operations or financial performance are few and far between. They’re the business equivalent of a planetary alignment or total solar eclipse. A specific set of conditions are required to launch, pursue and successfully complete such initiatives. CIOs would be well advised to consult the following checklist of launch criteria before presenting their 2021 digital transformation plans (and putting their personal reputations on the line).
1) What do they (your business partners) want you to do? Can the business leaders in your company clearly articulate the strategic problems they are trying to solve or the strategic opportunities they are trying to exploit through the use of new technology? Equally, or perhaps more importantly, can they prioritize the importance of these problems and opportunities? In all too many instances, business leaders can only describe their digital transformation goals in terms that are so general and nonspecific as to be meaningless.
2) What do you want to do? Most CIOs have their own ideas about the technologies that could produce the greatest benefits within their companies. Their ideas may be based upon business intuition, technical fascination or both. If the technologies that intrigue a CIO can’t meaningfully address the problems and opportunities identified by business executives, any initiative based on those technologies is likely doomed from the start. On the other hand, if business executives are unable to define their transformational goals in concrete terms, clever CIOs will find ways of convincing their business partners that the technology initiatives they’re proposing were actually their partners’ ideas in the first place!
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3) What will they (your business partners) trust you to do? All right! You’ve achieved a meeting of the minds with your business partners. You’re convinced that a specific set of technologies can deliver meaningful business benefits and your partners agree. You’re aligned. Now do they trust you and your team to actually manage a major transformational initiative to a successful conclusion? Every IT team has a scorecard of past successes and failures in managing major programs. Is your scorecard good enough to get the job, or is it time to bring in a big name consulting firm to run the show?
4) What can they (your business partners) afford to do? This is where the rubber meets the road. Do you remember your mother scolding you at a restaurant for having eyes that were bigger than your stomach? The same thing happens in the business world. Your business partners may be captivated by the vision of the transformation you’re proposing but simply fail to have funds to pursue it. Worse yet—they may ask you to start it in some scaled back, piecemeal fashion on a constrained budget and then they’ll complain that the initiative is failing to deliver its promised results during the next budget cycle.
5) What is your IT team capable of doing? If you’re the field general leading your troops into a transformational battle, you’d be well served to look over your shoulder and determine if your team shares your enthusiasm and is eager to abandon the comfort zones in which they are currently operating. Warning: many of your team members may exhibit passive-aggressive behaviors in which they aggressively support your initiative in public but privately adopt a wait and see attitude before changing existing processes or learning new skills.
6) What are they (your business partners) prepared to help you do? Truly transformational change in work practices, business processes and workplace behaviors is messy and painful. Business executives need to do far more than simply express vocal support for transformational initiatives. They need to get into the trenches with their direct reports and play a personal role in enforcing change, demanding progress and obsessively measuring business outcomes. All too many IT programs start as business/IT partnerships but rapidly devolve into “IT projects” when they fail to produce significant business results and/or business executives get distracted by competing priorities.
Otto von Bismarck—the famous German Iron Chancellor of the late nineteenth century—referred to politics as “the art of the possible.” He was perhaps the most famous exponent of Realpolitik, the use of international diplomacy to attain achievable goals rather than pursuing idealistic moral or ideological principles. Realpolitik principle is equally applicable to business transformational initiatives. CIOs need to abandon any delusions they may have about implementing new technologies during the current transformational mania and take a sober look at the conditions listed above before placing their personal reputations on the line as the originators or leaders of digital transformation initiatives. It’s time to get real about what can actually be accomplished and stop fantasizing about digital nirvana.