Digital transformation – Think big, start small, act now

Global businesses of all sizes, and across all sectors, are implementing mass scale digital transformation initiatives. Driven by the changing needs and wants of customers, some are trying to evolve into completely different types of businesses. Others are simply trying to innovate to enable them to improve their current service offering. But there is one common thread that runs through them all – the worry of where to start and how to ensure their digital transformation is a success.

When I took on the role of Chief Information Officer at the British Medical Association in 2016, it was clear that there was a lot of work to be done. Two years down the line, the BMA’s technological environment has been significantly modernised, improving the service it offers to our members of staff. The best knowledge is shared; as such, any CIOs seeking a model for digital transformation success would do well to learn the three stages all organisations must go through: the elephant, the mouse, and the cheetah.

The elephant: Think BIG

The elephant represents the first stage of a successful digital transformation – it’s the big picture. The BMA represents over 155,000 doctors across the UK, so for us the picture always had to be big. Any other large organisation will understand only all too well how elephantine in scale the challenges around technology can be.

Certainly, the systems powering the BMA were not as modern as they could be, leading to an inferior user experience. Take ID management, for example – with no modern access mechanism in place, members were forced to login with multiple passwords. As such, there was an understandable frustration with and disengagement from our services. In the era of SaaS, this is a state of affairs that many organisations will be familiar with.

Since the BMA’s function is to support members throughout their medical career – from student to professional doctor – this disengagement was a big problem. A technology strategy should centre on improving user experience, thereby encouraging users to remain committed to an organisation. The BMA is a people-centric organisation, and we always innovate for the sake of our members, not for the sake of being innovative.

For any organisation, modernising the products and services on offer is the elephant in the transformation process; it creates a modern workplace for staff and members. Methods can include transforming the desktop and end-user experience by making it a single sign-on, facilitating remote working, collaboration, and the intelligent use of data. For the BMA, success depended on the use of Microsoft’s suite of products, including Office 365 and Skype for Business but beginning with Azure, based on the recommendation of our partner Exponential-e.

The mouse: start small

Once the big-picture elephant is in place, it’s time to move on to the mouse – or, more accurately, mice. The idea here is to work on multiple micro-projects simultaneously in order to start moving towards the larger vision. Our goal was to move from a legacy environment to a tailored service architecture. The ‘mice’ in this case were the innovative applications we wanted to build on the front-end of this architecture to optimise our user experience.

Before we could unleash the mice, however, we needed to provide a secure platform for application development, replacing our failure-prone infrastructure with a robust, cloud-based network. To this end, Exponential-e built a hybrid cloud strategy for us, architecting two private clouds to host back-end core systems and services that were integrated into Azure. They also created a service-tier architecture – from gold to bronze – to arrange the level of availability and geographical protection each application received.

Part of our digital transformation was transforming the role IT played within the BMA, making them an internal service provider to the rest of the business. We wanted to free up individuals within our IT team to focus on developing applications at the front end using Azure’s PaaS capabilities and configurable APIs. Exponential-e took on the management of some core services to make this possible.

With our Azure-integrated infrastructure in place, we could use Power BI to visualise information about the business; we could also learn things from these dashboards that our workforce could then use to make informed business decisions day-to-day. Microsoft Dynamics and CRM (both of which were moved into the cloud) also helped us use data more effectively.

Another priority was to create more online engagement amongst our staff, giving them a shared platform for collaboration. ‘Loop’ was the name we gave to the intranet microsite developed, which helped boost staff engagement by 25%; collaboration tools such as Skype for Business, UC and conferencing and Office 365 helped our staff work remotely.

Keep in mind that all this back-end and front-end technology was developed and delivered in less than two years. It was the relatively small, mouse-like scale of these projects that enabled us to do this and gave us the ability to develop and test rapidly. And so, to the final stage:

The cheetah: act now

While the elephant and mouse stages are defined by size, the cheetah stage is defined by speed, agility, and acceleration. It’s easy to get bogged down when attempting to push through a digital transformation, and this can be fatal to strategy success. The imperative is to act fast, get ideas out there and gather feedback imminently. It might sound counterintuitive, but adopting a ‘fail fast’ mentality – the idea being that the faster a failure occurs, the faster it can be fixed or something else can be tried – can be the key to succeeding.

To this end, it’s important to note that acting swiftly doesn’t mean acting impetuously. Make sure teams are on-board with any changes proposed; not everybody is ready to adapt, and it’s vital to clarify every stage, especially when taking traditional tasks away from people. The best approach is to identify capabilities that each team member has that can be utilised and transferred as roles alter.

In our case, we needed Exponential-e to help us understand our business, the challenges it faced, and how to ensure our IT strategy underpinned the business transformation. This is because, at the end of the day, one size doesn’t fit all – and everyone’s journey will differ. Given some adaptive flexibility, however, the elephant, mouse, and cheetah trinity is a model for success for any business.

Ian Turfrey is CIO at the British Medical Association


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