Digital transformation: Necessary vs. sufficient

Lots of CIOs are facing the digital transformation imperative – and if we’re going to succeed, we need to coalesce around a better definition of just what digital transformation is.

For example, last year I attended a CIO conference. Sponsored by a variety of technology vendors, this particular conference drew about 100 local CIOs and consumed an entire day. The event’s “Digital Transformation” headline seemed intriguing, so I accepted the invitation.

I would categorize the technology vendor sponsors as some of the usual suspects. They were good companies that make good products: services, software, and even hardware vendors were represented.

This event was probably a good use of their field marketing dollars, and they likely obtained many qualified leads that probably drove some incremental business.

Otherwise, why would the same companies keep sponsoring these events? Whatever the motivation, I fear those marketing dollars diluted the “Digital Transformation” focus.

Most of these companies were selling some flavor of “cloud”: cloud storage, cloud compute, cloud networking, cloud management and so on. Naturally, the content presented at the conference tended to focus on one concept – cloud.

The apparent message was that cloud equals digital transformation. Given that digital transformation is kind of a nebulous topic, that may not be surprising. Making your company a digital business is the only thing that really matters right now. CIOs know it, and they need a lot of help.

So if what you have to sell is “cloud,” then of course digital transformation and cloud are one and the same.

But are they really?

Here is how this “cloud equals digital transformation” logic typically flows. Cloud (either public or private/on-prem) may get you a couple of huge benefits. Benefit number one is agility.

If you are part of the digital economy, speed-to-market is critical, and cloud can be faster – way faster. Benefit number two is cost. Cloud expenses can be lower, and by reducing operations costs, an enterprise may be able to redirect existing resources to app development.

In the digital economy, one of the most important things is revenue-generating, customer-facing apps, so by implementing cloud, a business can in theory feed that engine.

So there you have it. Cloud gets you agility and more application development, which is necessary for digital transformation. This is all true.

Unfortunately, there is more to digital transformation. If you look at companies that are successful digital enterprises, you will see a lot of cloud, but it’s not cloud technologies alone that are the secret sauce for most of them-it’s how those technologies are used and how they combine with other technologies.

One could select almost any traditional enterprise, migrate all its existing applications and data to the cloud, and shut down its data centers, but not really change the business.

Faster yes, cheaper yes, but it would be the same old business and old business model, just more efficient. In a time of escalating competitive stakes, that’s not going to be enough.

Back to the CIO conference. After a day of these vendor cloud presentations, the audience learned about some products, usually point solutions to a particular existing problem (and thus valuable), but they didn’t get much of anything to help them really transform.

Cloud is necessary for digital transformation but may be insufficient.

And that’s the rub. Digital transformation is a tough, multifaceted problem. Luckily, there are ways to move forward, and some of them are quite straightforward.

An API-first strategy, for example, allows companies to embrace today’s more granular and agile cloud-first mesh architectures, and to manage an increasingly diverse variety of backends, services and data.

The correct approach to APIs-one that views them as products that empower developers-is in many ways the foundation for developing many of the other aspects of digital transformation, such as effective leverage over cloud resources.

But enterprises must recognize that digital transformation can’t be reduced to any single technology. It’s not about mobile or cloud or AI or anything else-it’s about achieving a perpetual state of readiness and agility for whatever comes next. This process is about using the cloud and APIs, sure, but it’s also about changing the way a company operates.

It’s unhelpful, for instance, to create an API platform if the company still uses waterfall-style governance and funding methods designed for an antiquated era of application development.

The point of digital transformation is to gain the ability to adapt fast and with control, which means those APIs are only useful if engineers can easily leverage them without running into bureaucratic obstacles.

Digital transformation isn’t a technology you buy; it’s a way of operating and conducting business. Many technologies such as the cloud, are necessary to this process – but if they want all of those technologies to be sufficient, businesses need to adopt this perspective of perpetual evolution.

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