Automate Like a Digital Master: How to Get Ahead of the Crisis Curve and Stay There

Suddenly there’s a crisis. What do you do?

Many organizations responded to the COVID-19 crisis by quickly automating with digitally-distanced work processes such as telemedicine, digital learning, working from home and the like. But few were positioned to do it well.

So says best-selling author George Westerman in his essay: Digital Transformation Isn’t Really a Technology Challenge. The essay is featured in a newly published book called HYPERAUTOMATION—an anthology of eye-opening insights on the future of business automation.

There are all sorts of crises in business. But Westerman’s compelling commentary is an indispensable guide for large companies looking to transform amid a pandemic that has disrupted everything in the global economy.

Adapting to Change Is Essential

But adapting is a stepping stone to digital transformation. Based on his years of work and scholarship as a Senior Lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management, and as Principal Research Scientist for Workforce Learning at the MIT Jameel World Education Lab, Westerman says that true business transformation starts with a vision that fundamentally changes what you do.

Digital transformation, says Westerman, is about much more than adopting digital features and functionality. Leadership capability may be the most critical part of the formula.

Not to mention vision, an ability to bridge the IT/business divide, and effective governance. These are all essential to successful business transformation according to Westerman.

The existential threat of the COVID crisis snapped the urgency of transformation into focus. Today, every large business—in one way or another—is responding to coronavirus disruption. But few companies are succeeding, says Westerman, because most are adopting digital technology, but not the capability to drive real transformation.

The best companies—what Westerman calls “Digital Masters”—do two things better than everyone else. They are better at putting digital technology into customer experience, operations and business models. And they are better at envisioning and driving organizational transformation over and over again.

“Of the two,” says Westerman, leadership is the most important. Now more than ever, digital transformation isn’t just about being a digital company, it’s about being a better company because of digital.”

The Transformation Checklist

There’s a famous quote by Charles Darwin, says Westerman: “It’s not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent… It is the one that is most adaptable to change.” Turns out there’s a parallel in business: If you don’t know what to change or how to change, you won’t survive.

Strategic-minded, digital leaders focus on transformation more than technology adoption. They also tend to look at digital transformation as a capability and not just a project. The following three levers, say Westerman, are essential to getting the most out of your digital transformation strategy:

  1. Create a strong vision for how to be a different kind of company because digital makes it possible.
  2. Engage employees to help them understand the vision and the role they can play in helping the company move forward.
  3. Implement governance to ensure the organization is coordinating, sharing, and driving transformation in the right direction.

digital transformation conference

Deja Vu All Over Again

In many ways, says Westerman, what’s happening now is like 1999 all over again. Back then, the run-up to Y2K was a catalyst for change as the rise of the internet drove companies to rethink how they did business. Fast forward to 2020 and we see the economic uncertainty of COVID-19 driving change at a phenomenal rate.

The pandemic has also transformed the way we work, shop and interact with technology. Before masks, social-distancing, and business lockdowns, skeptics believed companies and customers would resist remote work, distance learning, telemedicine, remote patient monitoring, etc. But that’s not the case anymore.

Today we’re more able to innovate because cloud, containers, mobile, sensors, machine learning, and other technologies are becoming ubiquitous, interoperable, and increasingly capable according to Westerman.

Looking Over the Horizon

The remarkable evolution of software development—including Agile, DevOps, and low-code automation—is helping organizations apply technology to make transformation happen ever faster. Looking ahead, says Westerman, if you’re trying to anticipate what to expect over the next five to 10 years, it’s worth noting that transformational change will continue to accelerate in the new decade and beyond.

It’s easy to stay focused on the crisis that’s in front of us. But the opportunity cost of not adapting for the next one is real even if you can’t see it. This is where the flexibility of low-code comes in. The most important capability for any organization to invest in right now is the ability to innovate quickly. This should be a core part of every company’s culture according to Westerman.

The Digital Master Manifesto

“Every organization will need to get much better at being Agile, being innovative, and leveraging existing assets for new opportunities,” says Westerman.  “There’s a growing sense of urgency for every organization to build the capability required to transform over and over again—and make that a fundamental part of their core culture.”

“In other words, for every company, becoming a Digital Master is an existential challenge.”

And for executives facing down the COVID crisis, Westerman’s essay is a must-read.

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