This content is part of the Essential Guide: Next-gen IT infrastructure strategy to guide digital transformation

Digital transformation process includes the network

The digital transformation process puts pressure on the network to support new technology. Network pros need to be transformative, too, adapting new skills to interact with business.

In the late 1990s, Apple was a computer company that was easily recognizable, if seen by many as a relic, with nothing new to offer. Apple's Think Different ad campaign, however, heralded Steve Jobs' return and ran until 2002, a year after the iPod was released, revolutionizing the way the industry viewed the company. It was the second time that Apple -- which introduced its first personal computer, the Apple Macintosh, in 1983 with the "1984" Super Bowl commercial -- transformed the way everyone thought about technology. 

In a similar vein, enterprises today are considering digital transformation and what it might to do revolutionize their businesses. While every company's digital transformation process might not reach the same level as Apple's Think Different campaign, IT professionals say transformation is no less critical for enterprises that want to add value and grow business.

Even as companies embark on this transition, the journey isn't necessarily a smooth one. An estimated 75% of companies are either engaged in or are developing a digital transformation strategy, according to a 2017 report from Nemertes Research in Mokena, Ill. In addition, market research company Ovum, a part of Informa PLC in London, found that among enterprises that say they're pursuing digital transformation, only 8% consider themselves successful.

For enterprise networking, digital transformation is the process of applying technologies that improve the IT experience to drive business value. The idea of a digital transformation process isn't new. By definition, transformation reflects constant change management. But as organizations rely on more technology to support their business, digital transformation means more pressure on the network to support the technology -- and on network managers who must learn new skills and adapt new ways to interact with the business.

An enterprise can't go through a transformation without involving the network. And, sometimes, it means even changing the way the network is used, according to John Burke, CIO and principal research analyst for Nemertes.

For example, initiatives like agile branching to manage software updates require network automation and zero-touch provisioning, Burke said. In addition, internet-of-things applications come with a shift in traffic flows and patterns. Better security processes have to be in place to monitor application data that flows from the internet to the data center, as well. "The network is central to everything," he said.

Other network analysts agree. Rethinking how the network should work is a key element to digital transformation, according to Mike Gualtieri, a vice president with Forrester Research. Companies are looking for ways to meet customer demand by creating "real-time, hyperpersonalized customer experiences." To reach a state where the business is engaged in real time with customers, the network requires more consistent latency, he said. "Network availability is a necessity."

For Revation Systems, digital transformation means delivering digital communications services over secure networks, according to Perry Price, president and CEO at the Bloomington, Minn., company. For Revation's customers, being able to take a more comprehensive look at the whole enterprise by understanding traffic behavior is how they will be transformative, he added.

The company offers unified communications and collaboration services to government agencies, banking organizations and hospital systems. Revation extends digital transformation to its customers through tools like chat, email, desktop and screen sharing, and video conferencing over its cloud platform using routing software from 128 Technology. The vendor provides a secure application that manages "sessions," or groups of data from each interaction with the software.

Revation's customers are in various stages of the digital transformation process. For example, banks and financial organizations have shared information across interoperable platforms for several years, while healthcare providers still struggle with proprietary electronic health records systems that don't easily allow users to extract data. However, healthcare is ahead when it comes to collaborative applications: Doctors can communicate with patients over video chat, while banks and their customers typically do not, Price said.

Understanding their traffic increasingly is becoming key for Revation's customers, Price has found, which are all in heavily regulated industries that require a strict attention to security. "We want to know what every packet is doing, beyond IP routing," Price said. "We need to know how that data entered the network and why."

Understanding the basics of digital transformation and change management

Companies that are managing data in real time and using that information to make changes across the enterprise have reached a high stage of transformation, according to Nemertes Research.

But first, to start digital transformation change management, companies must make sure they have the basics in place, said Robin Gareiss, president and founder of Nemertes.

Digital transformation conjures thoughts of cutting-edge technologies -- IoT device platforms, bots using artificial intelligence to respond to network issues in real time and human-to-machine interfaces. But before any of the fun stuff can be implemented, the enterprise has to create a solid foundation on which to grow. "The advanced applications come later, when the baseline is finished," she said.

Nemertes has developed a benchmark outlining best practices for technologies and strategies that form the digital transformation process. According to its research, companies that have prioritized integrating baseline technologies such as security, cloud platforms and collaboration applications will have more success with their digital transformation plan.

It's not a simple process. Overall, companies working through a digital transformation spent one or two years focused on the baseline before implementing advanced and emerging technologies, Gareiss said.

Before the technologies can be implemented, companies have to set firm goals, she added. Growing revenue and reducing costs were among the most common goals Nemertes found in its research. Companies undergoing a digital transformation process also wanted to improve the customer experience and gain a competitive edge.

Between eight and 20 employees will typically make up a digital transformation project team, according to Nemertes' research. That staff includes executive leadership, IT and security managers, and business stakeholders working on strategy, budget, use cases and implementation. "You have to get the right people and the right number of people" in the room, Gareiss said.

Digital transformation at its basic level

Using data to navigate transformation

Enterprises can get tripped up in thinking that technology is the only crucial element of a digital transformation. That's not the case, according to Anna Wiącek, a director at Deloitte.

"It's not just about the tools and technology," she said. Digital transformation requires "a change in strategic thinking." Deloitte has been helping its customers with their own digital transformation using a combination of its consulting expertise and analytics tools.

Digital transformation means network managers must learn new skills and adapt new ways to interact with the business.

For an organization to be transformative, it has to look at what both internal and external customers need and expect, Wiącek said. Analytics is at the heart of understanding those needs, she added.

The consulting firm uses Moogsoft's artificial intelligence for IT operations platform, which uses machine learning algorithms to reduce alerts, correlate events into situations and automate workflow to provide actionable information more quickly to network managers.

In addition to using analytics to understand customers, the AI platform has helped them improve their response times to diagnosing and solving system problems, and it's led to a reduction in IT problems reported by users, Wiącek said.

Network manager transformation

More than just machines, the digital transformation process includes a cultural shift. Network managers will have to study their own behaviors and skills when it comes to digital transformation, as well.

Going forward, network managers will need new technical skills, Nemertes' Burke said. They will have to develop "a comfort with centrally defined policy and scripting and programming skills for software-defined networks."

Equally important, network managers will have to develop new interpersonal skills. Network professionals should "focus on having business-level conversations with business-line users and be able to translate that into action and technology on the network," Burke said.

Digital transformation heralds a new way for companies to do business and interact with customers. Harnessing the power of the network -- through the reliable delivery of secure applications and innovative technologies -- will help companies make the transition with as few bumps as possible.

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