Is software strategy (or lack of) holding back your digital transformation?

Technical debt and other digital transformation challenges don't have to bode doom for companies.

Legacy technology doesn't age very well, especially if it wasn't designed for the long haul. Take all the companies that first attempted to implement technology solutions 10 or 15 years ago but didn't plan for the future. Now, they’re likely stuck with aging infrastructure that prevents agility and allows the competition to run laps around them.

This isn’t an unusual phenomenon. Many IT executives and teams have embraced trendy technologies without weighing whether they will make sense in the coming years. Inevitably, they end up at a point where they’re playing a frustrating game of reactive whack-a-mole. They’re running around putting out fires, stressing themselves and everyone else out — and letting profitability wither on the vine.

Inadequate digital transformation and the real danger of technical debt

Research from Boston Consulting Group shows that though 80 percent of organizations want to accelerate digital transformation, only 30 percent of digital transformation efforts have been successful. So why do enterprise CIOs and CTOs so often fail to consider forward-thinking enterprise software strategies? Why is it that they're primarily concerned with keeping the lights on at the moment?

Several reasons seem to be at play. First of all, many professionals in technical roles can often feel that their responsibilities boil down to just keeping everyone's head above water. It’s tough to think strategically when you’re being pulled in a million directions daily.

A second issue is that it’s tough to become a proficient prognosticator when you’re knee-deep in the same problems day after day. When you spend so much time so close to a subject, you can lose your ability to strategize from a fresh perspective.

Or leaders may simply lack the time to research the latest innovations and best practices in enterprise software strategy and technology. If you don't know what's out there, you can't see new ways to unlock your firm's potential, especially when you're busy keeping everything else afloat.

These challenges can lead to several problems, but perhaps the most pressing is technical debt. All software projects incur some amount of technical debt; that’s part and parcel of technology. However, enterprise CTOs and CIOs who don’t keep an eye on how their technical debt accrues can wind up buried under it. This snowballs in turn because technical debt complicates and hinders progress.

McKinsey estimates that up to 20 percent of all technical budgets get eaten by technical debt. Plus, the problem seems to be getting worse, not better. That means more enterprises can expect to spend financial and human resources on dealing with the fallout from clunky internal technology architectures rather than focusing on the future.

Overcoming digital transformation challenges

Technical debt and other digital transformation challenges don't have to bode doom and gloom for companies, however — even those with old, intractable legacy systems in place.

Instead, leaders who want to innovate digital transformation solutions can identify and prioritize strategic enterprise software integrations with the following three steps:

1. Rethink your technology orthodoxy.

Challenging the status quo is a key element of true digital transformation. In other words, you need to stop planning for only what’s in front of you. Go through the mental exercise of tearing down the “why” behind the way things are now and thinking creatively about how they could be instead.

But don’t get locked into the belief that you have to solve every digital problem out of the gate — because you can't. If you have an inkling that your company could change something major in order to compete or scale, use your gut instinct as a starting point. Consider starting technology implementation first on a smaller scale with non-business-critical projects to give employees experience and freedom to think through how the technology could be used for bigger initiatives.

Remember: Designing a digital transformation strategy that will adapt to changing needs involves beginning at the end. Picture the “what could be” a decade from now. From there, you can work backward to build a picture of the digital changes you can make today that will enable large-scale efforts down the line.

2. Find digital champions in the trenches.

When you're examining how your company could be in the future, the answers to the "what can be better" questions are often found in the trenches. Employees perform the same work every day and have likely already thought to themselves about ways to make that work more efficient and improve outcomes. Empower your employees to speak up, and have a process in place to collect that feedback. Their input should inform your digital transformation strategy as you plan for the future.

How do you make sure employees’ voices are heard? Foremost, don’t just lurch from one ad-hoc digital transformation initiative to another. Make each change thoughtful and based on communications with workers. This will both inform a strategy that can make the company agile and capable of doing new and better things and get your employees on board from the beginning.

3. Become familiar with trendsetting transformations.

The future will bear out whether the promise of technologies like AI, machine learning, and blockchain are as transformative as some people think. Different technology trends are happening in every sector, and you shouldn't silo your thinking into the trends of your industry alone. Truly innovative thinking means looking elsewhere and getting creative about how trends in other industries could apply to your company.

Remember that your individual knowledge is not all-encompassing. No one person or even one leadership team could anticipate every variable in an expanding and changing marketplace. Inspire out-of-the-box thinking for yourself and your company at large by creating or joining diverse organizations or groups with members from many different industries and backgrounds. Diverse teams made up of eager thought leaders can see beyond tradition, and their collective ideas can become springboards for truly inspired digital transformation solutions.

You know you need new and innovative software to stay relevant and competitive in today's rapidly digitizing business landscape, but don't jump into a software strategy without considering what it means for the future. CIOs and CTOs can drive successful digital transformation for the long haul by adopting a future-looking mindset, involving stakeholders every step of the way, and looking beyond their own industries to uncover inspiration.

Chris Cardinal
Chris Cardinal
Chris Cardinal is a founding principal of Synapse Studios. His primary focus is on business development but enjoys helping architect software solutions for clients.

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