With digital transformation now a must for many businesses – large and small – Alex Wilkinson, Client Delivery Director at Cranford Group, shares his seven-step guide to overcoming the obstacles most commonly related with these change projects…

1. Define the scope of the project

For some organisations, a digital transformation programme could involve a relatively simple move from an on-premise to off-premise cloud infrastructure. Other businesses may be readying themselves to build their own secure data centre or roll out a complex multi-cloud strategy. Whatever the venture, the scope of the project needs to be clearly defined and communicated, so that objectives and timescales can be mapped out and agreed by all relevant stakeholders.

It is important to remember that everything is relative too – what represents a straightforward transition for one team could prove a huge challenge for the next. A well-articulated plan ensures expectations can be managed from the outset, and potential obstacles anticipated and mitigated.

2. Prioritise people

Irrespective of the technology or operating model that is selected for a digital transformation project, the involvement of the right people is key. In fact, overlooking the role that humans play in such schemes, is one of the most common reasons why projects fail – or at least encounter stumbling blocks.

Around 90% of digital transformation projects take place to make the lives of people easier, in some respect. So, to neglect people-centric considerations throughout the assignment seems ludicrous. This should remain in sharp focus from day one, through to completion, and beyond.

The right people are required to deliver the transformation too. Do they have the required skill-set? The necessary mindset? Are there gaps within the team? These questions need to be answered before anything else takes place.

3. Complete a competency framework

Digital transformation is one of the most overused phrases in the business environment at present. So, linked to point 1, it is important to understand exactly what activity is taking place, and also which skills are required to execute this brief (as eluded to in point 2).

It is then possible to complete a competency framework which clearly demonstrates the existing capabilities of the team, as well as any potential areas of skills exposure. Some soft skills can be taught, providing the project schedule allows for the learning process to take place. Other more technical expertise may need to be brought in, whether to permanently plug a gap or to drive the project execution on a contracted basis – the latter being particularly common in the cloud and DevOps space, given the resourcing challenges currently being experienced (Gartner, January 2019).

Ultimately, if you don’t measure you can’t manage, so this competency framework is a crucial exercise to ensure the right skills are in position.

4. Develop knowledge

 There are so many ways to upskill staff and fuel knowledge transfer, from investing in formal in-house or external training, to devising a bespoke e-learning programme, and/or leveraging the collaborative mindset of the developer community. The most appropriate route depends on factors such as the project timeframe, training budget and culture of the business.

Ideally, the learning plan should be project or operating model specific. Ask yourself – do you need front-end developers, or people with DevOps, cybersecurity, big data, or AI specialisms, for instance? Is AWS, Azure or ServiceNow knowledge a must? Or specialities like Python and Jira?

The next question is whether these skills can be taught or whether it is better to bring experienced talent into the team, if only for the duration of the project.

5. Foster a data-driven culture

A recent article by Craig Stewart, SVP of products at SnapLogic, perfectly coined this point: “A data culture is, simply, when everyone in the company is switched on to the potential of data.” He also stressed that: “Building a data culture needs to be a crucial part of the digital transformation process.”

So, EQ skills matter just as much as the team’s technical capabilities for instance, as does a shared acknowledgement for the role that data plays throughout the organisation. People that have an aptitude for learning and development typically support digital transformation, whereas others who resist – or do not understand – the change, may impede the project’s success.

Managing cultural change can be a long and complex process, so if an appetite for digital transformation doesn’t exist, the project will always be harder to execute – but not impossible. Strong leadership and communication are paramount before any new strategies or infrastructures are implemented, so that people appreciate the reason for change and are hopefully on board in the earlier phases. Many individuals won’t work in a new way unless they understand why it will benefit the business and/or them.

Someone should therefore own the ‘marketing’ surrounding the digital transformation exercise, even if this is only an internal communications process. Looping back to point 1, this should remain a people-centric programme of work.

6. Of course, there’s the tech!

This is one of the most obvious scenarios where there can be no such thing as prescriptive ‘one size fits all’ advice. The technology and operating model that suits one digital transformation brief may not be right for the next organisation, even if they have a seemingly comparable objective. There are so many elements at play, but of course in considering a seamless digital transformation project, it is important to reference the need to choose the best-fit tech.

A bank, looking to transfer millions of users to a new app, will undoubtedly have more due diligence to carry out than a clothes retailer, who may experience a small amount of downtime, for instance. There is no way the bank could utilise a public cloud environment, for example – they may decide the only way forward is to build a bespoke data centre from scratch. And that’s before they even think about the UI/UX. Everything comes down to the brief concerned.

7. Understand the compliance, governance and security requirements of the project

Cloud is often the most secure infrastructure for an organisation’s data, but the implications of a hack could be devastating. Organisations must therefore be acutely aware of their compliance and governance requirements, when it comes to keeping their data secure.

It is important to consider things such as the resilience of the proposed infrastructure, GDPR obligations and disaster recovery strategies. Which cloud environment is most appropriate, for example, can the proposed partner provide the SLA you require, and do they have a proven approach to DR, that will minimise any business disruption or reputational damage, should the worst happen?