Achieving transformative business outcomes is an ongoing process. IT modernisation projects are a starting place—but not a destination.
If you’re gearing up for a 5K race, it would be simple to trade in your old, beat-up running shoes for a new pair—but it would be impossible to switch legs with your neighbour who’s an accomplished cross-country runner.
This sort of difference may seem ridiculously obvious in the biological world, but in the IT world, it’s also an important part of digital transformation.
While one could characterise legs as “tightly coupled” to the rest of the body, shoes are a “loosely coupled” part of our wardrobes—and many of the transformative business results that modern IT can deliver similarly revolve around loosely coupled services and systems.
The things your company are good at can be expressed via software, and the more granularly and modularly you can compose, recompose, and combine that software, the more agilely you can leverage your proprietary strengths for new digital products and experiences.
For example, suppose your business sells tickets to movies, and that customers are no longer satisfied with ordering tickets via a stand-alone application. Instead, they want to use voice assistants or to make purchases within the context of what they’re already doing, such as browsing social media, rather than opening a specific app.
It’s optimal if some of the data and functionality from your existing ticketing application can be easily reused to satisfy these customer demands, just as it’s useful that you can wear your running shoes with not only your racing clothes but also other outfits. For one thing, developers won’t have to spend months duplicating capabilities that have already been built.
But reuse will be difficult if your ticketing application was built in legacy fashion, with functionality and data tightly coupled and systems integrated through bespoke, poorly documented projects. Reuse is much easier if the application has been assembled by loosely connecting granular, independently deployable services—one service for ticket purchasing, for example, another to look up an inventory of showtimes, another to find the theatre nearest to the user, and so on.
Extending your business to social media experiences or voice assistants, and the ecosystem of consumers who use them, can be as simple as packaging the right services via application programming interfaces, or APIs, and connecting them with APIs from the major voice and social platforms.
Likewise, just as it’s useful that you can switch out your running shoes without breaking your body, it’s useful to be able to update a specific piece of data or functionality without breaking the application. If the ticketing application’s data and functionality are tightly coupled, changing one thing may break something else—just like if you actually tried to trade legs with someone else, your body may reject the transplant.
But if the application is assembled from smaller, independent services, then updating one service without impacting the others is as simple as switching out your shoes.
IT MODERNISATION IS A STARTING POINT, NOT A DESTINATION
Just as you’re unlikely to run your best race while wearing old shoes with holes in the bottom, your company is unlikely to transform its business if it relies on legacy IT technologies and methods. You may need to switch from building legacy monolith applications that tightly couple everything to building fine-grained microservices and APIs that can be loosely coupled to create new digital experiences. You may want to switch from on-premises legacy infrastructure to cloud services built for a modern, loosely coupled world.
But adopting technology isn’t the same as changing your business. The point of a 5K race isn’t to wear specific shoes so much as it is to run fast. Likewise, the point of digital transformation isn’t to use microservices, APIs, and the cloud; it’s to create a more modular, composable, portable, and interoperable set of IT assets that support more responsive, efficient, and innovative operations in order to engender new business models and strategic flexibility.
Moving the status quo to the cloud mainly serves to perpetuate the status quo, for example—which is likely one of the reasons McKinsey & Company has found that a company’s cloud investments are a poor indicator of whether it’s achieving transformational business results. IT modernisation projects, such as migrating workloads to the cloud, are a precondition to making the operational changes that enable digital transformation—but they are not digital transformation in and of itself.
For example, because they decouple functionality from applications, use of APIs and microservices means that changes to a given function will not break the rest of the application. This in turn means that development teams can switch from big, slow-moving groups in which everyone follows one roadmap to smaller teams that work independently, and more quickly, in parallel.
Moreover, because APIs decouple functionality and data from the interface, access to IT assets can be more easily controlled, managed, and analyzed. This lets enterprises gain insights from API usage, such as which functions or data are most popular with developers or what kinds of cyberthreats are most pervasive, and offer developers self-service access to APIs without compromising security—all things that contribute to the agility and responsiveness of the organization and, consequently, to its ability to meet customer demands.
Similarly, because cloud services decouple workloads from the infrastructure they run on, enterprises can rely on cloud providers for infrastructure management, freeing up the enterprise’s technical talent for business-focused tasks. Additionally, enterprises can move assets from one cloud to another, building best-in-breed solutions across clouds rather than being locked into a single provider’s products and roadmap.
As these examples demonstrate, digital transformation cannot be reduced to just adopting the various components of modern IT. The technology is an important starting place—but the disruptive part is the larger process of leveraging modern IT to enable the business to gain the ongoing autonomy, responsiveness, and speed to meet changing customer demands.
In this respect, digital transformation never ends. IT modernisation projects may kick-start digital transformation efforts, and there may be many more discrete projects along the way, but digital transformation itself is not a project so much as a way of operating to achieve a perpetual state of agility.