Originally published to HotTopics as my first article of 2024, posting here for completeness. 

If the UK is truly to be a super-power in the areas of Digital and Data by 2030 then digital leaders must be able to have an influence on the direction of organisations and help orchestrate how innovation will be the vehicle we must use to help transformation to take hold.

The growing obsession with AI as the panacea of future transformation gives digital teams an opportunity to assure their position as a welcome member of the transformational executive.  Digital continues to become more of a profit generation line for the future and less of a cost line requiring investment. As this happens it is important that we continue to be able to be strident in how we will create hospitable environments for innovation and transformation across our businesses.

If we are successful as digital leaders and by 2030 the dial has moved to a focus on AI then we’re not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy.

This is because the role of ‘change agent’ and change specific programmes no longer exists; delivering change, being the advocate for new ways of working and embedding transformation in our businesses is no longer the prevue of certain roles but at last becomes the job of every single person in the business. Secondly, (and even more scary for a CIO of 25 years) the death of the ‘IT Department’ will (maybe) at last become a reality. Recently I saw a great speech from a renowned CIO who called for others to rid themselves of their egos and begin to understand and agree that their role as it is now described has to go. Not the most popular opening presentation but incredibly thought provoking.

As digital leaders we talk of how we need to be part of our business, how we need to be there at the table to answer problems and not just install ‘stuff’ that our business has procured. If we are successful in making our relationship truly collaborative instead of transactional, then businesses will reap the benefits, experience and knowledge that digital professionals bring. Some businesses have achieved this and it has been a long journey using lots of different tactics to get there. In my previous role at Boots the separation of Digital and IT ensured that the role of digital transformation truly had a seat at the table with the business and in particular trading of the brand. It made marketing and technology people sit together to resolve problems but it also created a new ‘garden fence’ between technologists and digital colleagues where two disciplines could often jar.  

What is the optimal way that a digital professional needs to show up in 2024? Particularly if we are doing so with the knowledge that such significant change is really around the corner (this time).

If we look at a few examples in the finance/banking sector maybe we can build some ideas from there. Starling Bank for example publicly exclaims it is a bank without an IT department and yet it is a true digital first innovator in the sector. Judo Bank a relatively new entrant achieving its full licence in April 2019 with the technology premise of owning no IT estate and ‘Everything as a Service’ (EaaS) becoming the way forward it has adopted to great success (with a Net Promoter Score of +85). DBS the world’s best digital bank (according to many media outlets) took an approach of embracing the concept of a platform business to its fullest reach, organising for work around platforms, these being a combination of technology assets and the talents that support, manage and guide them to delivery through transformation and innovation and crucially the funding needs to do so.  

Each of these are fascinating case studies are worthy of a bit of research and definitely worth exposing to your business next time they ask how do we transform faster/cheaper/efficiently in a joined up way. I have a worry though; in the late 1990s healthcare was asked to look at the travel and tourism industry for inspiration and the same question came up often: ‘If I can book my holiday online from end to end why can’t I do the same for my healthcare experience?’ A valid(ish) question to ask but exposing the crucial element that each business is different and subsequently inimitable and does need to land on its own transformational journey and find its own way of ‘being’ when delivery is required across the entire business. The banks above are just that – an example – each one of them applying their own needs to their direction. We have yet to create the perfect cookie cutter digital transformation shape that we can all apply, so take from these examples and see how they fit with your business, take them on this journey.

Transformation requires investment – continued investment –  that once started will always need to be made and will always be a moving target.  A moving target because there is not an actual end state to reach but a cultural agreement that the business you are part of is now digital first and customer centric and as digital is now a consumerised ‘thing’ that does not have an end state then the business also now is on a constant path of change.

The Abilene Paradox (1974) runs rife for digital professionals that are on the transformation journey. The paradox describes when a group of people collectively decide on a course of action that is counter to the preferences of most or all individuals in the group, while each individual believes it to be aligned with the preferences of most of the others. We need to find ways to combat this (or at least understand and expose it). Are we concerned enough about how we manage conflict when in reality the management of (assumed) agreement is where we find ourselves too often?

The thesis is that in contemporary organisations there is no ability to cope with the fact that we can often go ahead with something that we don’t agree with to keep the harmony of the organisation. This can be seen as consensus but when the Abilene Paradox is at play it is not a consensus and is a situation where individuals and teams are actually in discreet conflict with one another and yet pretending to all be running in the same direction. Often to maintain perception of consensus. As we look at the silo of the digital team or IT department the Abilene Paradox is often at play, for example the need to reduce the budget of transformation is ‘agreed’ as a principle of the organisation and yet the need to transform, be more efficient, be digital first, avoid cyber risk is also agreed. To avoid confrontation the IT Budget is cut but the expectation of delivery is left as it was and suddenly the team is facing a burn out it can’t manage and a failure rate that impacts on its reputation that ultimately will see the next budget conversation cutting still deeper and further.

If the Digital Professional is strident enough, and is not a silo in its own right seeking its own ‘IT Budget’ and the delivery of technology is seen as simply part of doing business in 2024 then the avoidance of Abilene Paradox in this scenario is easier to make happen.

I have a brilliant memory of Leo Varadkar, the previous Minister for Health in the Republic of Ireland asking me when I would have finished transforming the Irish healthcare system with digital investment. ‘Never’, I said, witnessing his initial perplexed look and the dawning realisation that when digital and transformation work hand in hand then a case for  continuous change is conceived. Sadly, any digital professional working in a civil or public service role will need to do this persuasion and create this dawning realisation quite frequently as leadership changes mean new people to convince will be a reality you can have no impact upon.

So, what do we take from all of this? We need to create the environment to establish unity across the business that you and your digital colleagues are part of. Strength is from diversity not always from consensus, all pulling in an agreed way to the common goal is more important than the details of the how. As digital leaders we need to create comfort to speak up without fear and explain (and listen to) how we can achieve the most together. Thank those that speak up and believe in strength in disunity if we are ‘slowly’ agreeing the end state and direction. And, lets get rid of the ego, the most important truth to hold dear is that the digital professional has THE role to play in the next generation of your business, how it is identified within that business will cease to matter, what will matter is the voice you have at the table of change.