Instilling a culture of digital transformation

Communities of practice, agile methods, cross-functional teams and platform strategies rank among the methods IT leaders use to institutionalize change and create a culture of digital transformation.

Digital transformation, ideally at least, is an ongoing strategy for tackling business problems and enabling new ventures -- as opposed to a one-off project.

As such, the approach presents as much of an organizational and cultural challenge as a technical one. But what are the structures, methodologies and tools that give enterprises the best chance to make digital transformation an enduring philosophy rather than a quickly abandoned management fad?

Interviews with CIOs and IT leaders point to several emerging tactics. Among them are communities of practice, an agility initiative -- typically involving cross-functional teams -- and platform thinking. These tools are proving useful for managing the sweeping changes that affect how employees perform their jobs, develop products and interact with customers during a large transformation effort. But they are not always easy to implement and face the same risk of failure as the ambitious technology initiatives of previous eras.

"A lot of [employees] have experienced the big program at a company that didn't go well," said Ryan Gilmour, managing director at Slalom Consulting, a firm that advises companies on strategy, technology and business transformation. "They remember the pain and angst. Can you get people to embrace not just the notion of change, but how they deal with it?"

Digital transformation tools and methods can advance initiatives.
Companies find these digital transformation tools and methods can advance initiatives.

Creating communities of practice mitigates turf warfare, scales projects

Getting people to buy into change isn't simple; neither is scaling digital transformation beyond isolated successes. Both jobs call for corporate-level involvement to shine a light on transformation wins, encourage deployment elsewhere in the business and provide guidance. But too much of a top-down approach can rankle local leaders in highly distributed companies.

Some organizations are turning to communities of practice, sometimes called communities of support, to advance digital transformation while avoiding turf warfare. Such communities bring people together to work on common challenges and share best practices.

Chris Nardecchia, senior vice president of IT and CIO at Rockwell Automation, said he's found the community of support model works best for including local participation in corporatewide initiatives. The community of support creates a centralized structure that provides resources for local implementations to use as needed. Those resources include assistance with investment planning and prioritization as well as a standard method for managing digital transformation rollouts.

quote box on transformation culture

The idea is to give local implementation teams the backing they need to launch projects they will eventually manage on their own.

"You want them to feel part of the process and you need them to sustain it," Nardeccia said.

Resources also include technical experts who can be assigned to local initiatives. A community of support, for example, could supply data scientists to an implementation team that needs help with machine learning algorithms.

"It's powerful if you have a community of support to share resources across the enterprise and to get people working on common problems," Nardecchia said. The centralized community also helps avoid duplication of effort, he added.

Can you get people to embrace not just the notion of change, but how they deal with it?
Ryan GilmourManaging director, Slalom Consulting

Rockwell Automation's approach to transferring knowledge

Rockwell Automation has taken this approach with Microsoft Power Apps, a product that lets organizations build applications and automate business processes with low- or no-code. The company's Power Apps community provides a central hub with people who know the ins and outs of the technology, Nardecchia said. Local teams tap into this centralized community of support to get expertise they need.

A plant in Europe, for example, may want to create an application to boost workgroup productivity but lack the Power Apps skills to do so. In that case, local managers could pitch their idea to the community, which would provide people to instruct them on Power Apps tools and techniques. The local group would then deploy, maintain and operate the application. After gaining experience, the group could end up offering their own expertise.

"They have the skills they can contribute to the community for the next person that has a need for something," Nardecchia said. "They become part of the larger community." Over time, a community becomes more self-sustaining and requires less executive engagement, he added.

V2MOM as a rallying point for transformation

Communities of practice are part of Phil Komarny's transformation strategy at Maryville University. Komarny, the St. Louis school's chief innovation officer, aims to replace the unwieldy business processes students currently use with modern applications such as Salesforce and Slack. He believes in creating a culture where people feel connected and encouraged to blend ideas for improving the student experience.

"It's not command-and-control time," he said. "We're basically creating communities of practice around the specific technologies and processes we need to run the business better."

Komarny also subscribes to the Vision, Values, Methods, Obstacles and Measurements framework, known as V2MOM. The framework, which originated at Salesforce, states the organization's vision and helps employees understand how their roles and objectives line up with that vision. Komarny was vice president of innovation at Salesforce before joining Maryville in November 2021.

"Making everything very visible and very aligned -- I think that's what it takes to drive this kind of change," Komarny said. "It's not being done to them. It's being done with them."

Pursuing agility and building cross-functional teams

As the pace of digital transformation accelerates, agility has become a watchword among enterprises. Strategies around agility range from adopting formal Agile methodologies to devising lowercase agile approaches that aim to deliver results faster.

Shifting customer purchasing patterns, influenced by the COVID-19 pandemic, have reinforced the need to achieve business agility in a rapidly changing world. Changing consumer behaviors have led Chase to "embrace agile at a different scale," said Rohan Amin, the financial services company's chief product officer. Amin's purview includes the Chase Mobile app and Chase online.

How Chase builds such products today marks a departure from previous efforts to build systems for delivering customer experience.

"In some cases, experiences before had been built based on what we could do technically," Amin said. "This is just how our systems were architected."

Chase's revised approach is built around "agile transformation," which Amin described as a methodology that guides how the organization builds software. The emphasis is on creating software incrementally, and in smaller batches, to tackle specific issues and needs, he added.

This method of transformation also calls for cross-functional teams that include the business side of the enterprise. Chase's cross-functional partnership unites product, design, data and analytics, and engineering personnel. This collaboration "is about getting business folks a lot closer to the details of what's happening on the inside and what our engineers are building," Amin said.

The upshot is clear accountability, rapid decision-making and the ability to build software at scale, he noted.

Slalom's Gilmour cited velocity as one way organizations measure digital transformational success. He said he works with clients that operate in a small-and-nimble startup mindset and large enterprises that have adopted scaled frameworks. The latter include the Scaled Agile Framework and Large Scale Scrum, both of which aim to implement Agile processes across multiple development teams.

Some organizations eschew Agile in favor of homegrown methods. Joseph Thomas, CIO at PenFed, a nationwide credit union headquartered in McLean, Va., said he doesn't talk Agile or Lean Agile. Instead, PenFed's IT department uses an 8-8-8 approach for achieving business agility and providing software features quickly.

"We deliver within eight hours, eight days or eight weeks," he explained. "And I work very much in partnership with the business" to determine what can be done and what should be done.

Getting business and technology on the same page is an objective Slalom also pursues. Gilmour said the consulting firm believes in a top-down/bottom-up approach that brings together a transformation management office, executive-level sponsorship and grassroots efforts advocating for Agile processes. The transformation management office -- what some organizations might call a center of excellence -- takes responsibility for establishing standards and practices. This organization also communicates why the proposed digital transformation is happening. How it gets done, however, is left to the executive tier.

"The executive sponsorship has to decide how the organization is going to consume it," Gilmour said. The leadership determines whether the rollout follows the Big Bang approach or takes an incremental path that introduces change on a division-by-division basis, he noted. The grassroots component, meanwhile, gets a say in how areas such as software development will function in the transformed business.

Adopting a platform mentality

Transforming enterprises have also adopted a platform approach, although, as with agile, the term can mean different things within different companies.

In some cases, it can describe a technology stack that provides considerable capability on its own with room for future elaboration. Organizations can build upon and adapt a platform for an expanding number of use cases. Other characteristics include an ample partner ecosystem, which provides additional features, and no-code/low-code components that let business users create apps.

Digital transformation, with its growing demand for custom software, has influenced the rise of citizen developers and sparked low-code adoption, according to Gartner.

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Thomas cited the ability to use low-code/no-code technology to enable the business as part of PenFed's platform strategy, which resides on Salesforce. "This notion of application assembly is really going to be a trend going forward," he said.

PenFed began adopting Salesforce in 2018 as an alternative to specialty SaaS applications geared to smaller credit unions and large-scale custom development. The credit union also benefits from the Salesforce partner ecosystem, having deployed UiPath for robotic process automation and Ping Identity for two-factor authentication.

Platform thinking follows PenFed's take on the 80/20 rule: "Eighty percent of the value comes from the Salesforce Platform, ecosystem, low-code/no-code and reusable components, which allows delivery in 20% of the time," Thomas said.

California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, meanwhile, is also building its digital future on a cloud-based technology platform offered by ServiceNow. The deployment began with managing IT help desk tickets and expanded to include the financial aid office and other employee workflows. The current phase of the rollout brings the platform to the student population.

Pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly and Company, however, takes a different tack on platforms. The company has created centralized platforms for technologies such as natural language processing and forecasting. The platforms consist of algorithms and pre-built services that provide the foundation for building applications, said Vipin Gopal, chief data and analytics officer at Eli Lilly and Company.

The forecasting platform, for instance, includes a core algorithm for addressing sales forecasting, supply chain forecasting or other needs as they emerge.

"That is a fundamental principal that we use -- a platform-based approach to rapidly develop and deploy solutions for core areas that cut across the enterprise," Gopal said.

Telling a compelling story

These modern tools of change, from agile methods to technology platforms, can help propel digital transformation. But Gilmour suggested an organization's kit shouldn't neglect old-fashioned storytelling. Employees who can't see themselves in the transformation narrative are unlikely to see it through.

"When a company transforms, each person transforms and you have to individualize the journey for them," he said. "Otherwise, they either don't change or they opt out of the company, which is the worst thing that happens with transformations. They don't see themselves in the future."

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