True North Tech Series: The Digital Journey Begins and Ends with People

The type of IT department that serves in a supporting role to the business, operating as a service provider and cost center that is reactive to requests, is still largely ingrained in the DNA of many organizations. In fact, the latest IT spend research from Gartner indicates that nearly three-quarters (71 percent) of IT spend is allocated to routine business operations, as opposed to business-enabling technology.

To keep pace with the digital transformation imperative, this paradigm must shift. Technology must become an integrated driving core of the business through a series of reimagined roles and skillsets that permeate every function, including audit, security, finance, procurement, HR and strategy. Accompanying this change, becoming “digital” means changing nearly everything that these functions affect, including supply chain, omnichannel customer experiences, business model, and more.

All these considerations aside, one of the most critical elements of any digital transformation is the people. Activating your people in the context of digital transformation people can be challenging in many of today’s organizations. Because employees often operate within functional silos, people initiatives also tend to be siloed. When becoming digital, leaders should begin with a cross-functional people initiative. Not only will your workforce need the tools and skills to operate in a digital world, but IT employees also need to be fluent in the business’ language and strategic priorities. They need to think of their work—and measure their performance—in terms of specified business teams, functions, and projects.

As organizational leaders undergo a digital transformation journey and wrap their arms around the seismic workforce shifts needed to enable digital transformation, organizational roles emerge as a fundamental place to get started.

Characteristics and Cultural Attributes Needed

Digital companies have mastered the capacity to do, learn, and adapt. They realize that digital transformation is not an end state but rather a state of ongoing evolution. Tactically, what are some of the markers of a digitally enabled organization?

  • The business and IT department work as one, organized around products with cross-functional teams.
  • Individuals are multi-skilled and in cross-functional teams.
  • The organization has an agile mindset.
  • Team members are highly collaborative (within and across teams) and supported by the right technology and tools.
  • Innovation is a key priority and a part of the culture that empowers both strategy and day-to-day ways of working.
  • The business offers attractive career paths and continuous skills development.
  • The organization offers a positive and dynamic working environment.
  • The organization has rapid learning cycles with widely and quickly distributed knowledge.

Help Wanted

Digital businesses comprise key roles, including the product owner, project managers, and scrum masters (or equivalent). Separate technical functions such as architecture and development teams work much more closely together in cross-functional engineering teams.

While the optimal structure and specific roles for a digital business will vary from organization to organization, they share some universal patterns. For organizations looking to accelerate their digital transformation journeys, structuring roles around the following key elements is a great place to start.

The CIO, CDO, CTO or equivalent should serve in a digital business vision owner capacity. They define the key business measures and objectives and articulate the overarching vision and strategy. This leader should make final decisions on product direction.

Program management, not to be confused with product management, is responsible for owning the long-term plan to achieve the product roadmap, including budgets and resource allocations, and for maintaining the release schedule.

When it comes to product management, the essence of the product owner’s role is to maximize the value of his or her product. But we see the scope of that role vary from client to client, product to product, largely based on the organization’s agile maturity and the maturity of the product. Getting started, organizational leaders should define a variety of product owner roles, with specific clarity on ownership, and a definition of what each role will and will not do. Further, they should be assigned based on product maturity and be designed to learn and evolve as needed.

Agile development is central to the engine of digitally transformed organizations. Scrum masters need strong leadership and enabling skills, a good understanding of technology, and an ability to solve problems rapidly. They must also be seasoned communicators and influencers who are comfortable with dealing with conflict, are empathetic, and can create rollout plans that support agile processes across the business.

Finally, experience designers and front-end engineers are responsible for the overall look and feel of the digital product, putting a strong focus on the customer experience. These individuals use human-centered design and rapid test-and-learn cycles to gain insights through customer research that ultimately improves the end users’ experience. Fusing skill sets from both IT and the business, front-end engineers need expertise in web and mobile technologies such as HTML, CSS, and modern JavaScript frameworks, and native mobile platforms on either iOS and/or Android.

Rethinking the Engineer

In legacy organizations, developers and operations typically work on separate teams. In digitally-enabled businesses, development and operations function as a single team, and the emergence of the engineer reflects this new multi-disciplinary focus. Long gone are the days when operations teams are configured as a ticket-taking function that operates separate from the rest of the organization. Rather, they should be working day-to-day with other business teams to power more responsive and adaptive products.

DevOps engineers have experience and knowledge to navigate a rapidly changing development and cloud-infrastructure computing ecosystem. They can build out tools and automations that provide development teams with self-service and on-demand access and infrastructure resources at the click of a button. The have deep knowledge of infrastructure-automation technologies, including Chef and Puppet and cloud platforms such as Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure. DevOps engineers must understand how technology serves business goals and be flexible in adapting approaches to changing organizational needs.

Full-stack architects must be fluent across all technology components that include the web/mobile user interface, middleware microservices and back-end databases, and ideally have a deep expertise in one or more areas. They link the architectural and business visions by focusing on total value, not just technical excellence. They understand how an architecture needs to be flexible and evolve to meet changing business goals and can produce working software to illustrate a concept.

Finally, data scientists and engineers develop and maintain enterprise- and digital-specific data models. They create and maintain plans for data management and warehousing.

A digital core, built of reimagined roles and skillsets across functions, powers the businesses that are equipped to respond to changing customer needs and keep pace with the rate of innovation. While becoming digital requires a change in almost everything about the way an organization operates, North Highland’s research conducted in April 2018 cites “leadership alignment” as the top driver of the successful design and adoption of technology platforms and solutions. This helps solidify the importance of people – and the underlying mindsets, roles and attitudes they possess – as a fundamental element of any digital transformation. Organizations that design their workforce roles around the key elements described above will activate a key component of their digital transformation journey.