Every four or five years something comes along in the digital ecosystem that’s life changing. Right now, that something is Generative AI (GenAI).

I’d be the last person to downplay the impact that GenAI is likely to have. It is poised to be the most disruptive innovation in business to date — more revolutionary than the Internet, the iPhone, or cloud. 

At the same time, I recognize that GenAI is no different than any other in a long line of disruptive digital technologies. It’s not a strategy; it’s a tool — one that depends on IT to get the fundamentals right in order to derive business value from it. Lots of people will lose sight of that fact in the race to deploy the next big thing. I’ve seen it happen time and again.

There are no short cuts to digital transformation, even and especially when it comes to GenAI. The good news is that we IT leaders have amassed years of experience in what it takes to drive technology-enabled business change, and the rules remains the same even as the tools evolve.

Digital Transformation: A Playbook in Three Acts

Every organization needs a foundational digital transformation playbook to take advantage of technology advances. I’ve developed one of my own, a synthesis of foundational and fundamental IT transformational principles accumulated over a 35-year career as a consultant and technology leader. It’s based not only on my own experiences but also those of a broad network of enterprise technology thought leaders. The playbook has served me well, from my earliest days providing IT advisory services (long before anyone coined the term “digital transformation”) through the years I served as CIO and digital transformation leader at five growing Fortune 500/1000 companies.

Of course, the principles are applied uniquely in each company, depending upon the industry, legacy systems and culture, and customers served. But the core approach is consistent and has proven to work well in all situations.

At a high level, the digital playbook consists of three categories of action:

1.    IT transformation. Before you do anything else, you’ve got to get the basic IT and cybersecurity fundamentals right in order to empower your employees to be productive. You need that IT foundation in place to support the next levels of scalable and agile success. This involves implementing cybersecurity-integrated engineering principles to configure the mobile devices on the edge, high-speed connectivity from headquarters to the field with a perimeter network to protect the organization, cloud computing, single sign-on, self-service employee capabilities, and workforce tools that support collaboration and innovation and provide equitable experiences wherever employees are working.

2.    Business transformation. This aspect of the digital playbook is focused on consolidating and integrating enterprise business systems (e.g., ERP, HCM, CRM) to improve back office and front office efficiency as well as setting up global business services to expedite the integration of previous and future acquisitions. Tools like business process mining (BPM) and robotic process automation (RPA) can help to streamline and automate processes. Implementing analytics and role-based dashboards can enable a continuous improvement mindset across the organization when coupled with a “lean into the red” approach that welcomes the opportunity to learn from what’s not working in order to improve it. And investing in talent development throughout the business can foster digital mindsets and advance the digital maturity of the workforce. The goal with business transformation is to address technical and data debt and capitalize on a single source of truth to best position the business to leverage ever more valuable digital platforms such as customer portals, supply chain systems, digital manufacturing technologies, and employee enablement systems.

3.    Digital transformation. With IT and business transformation well underway, it’s possible to really move with speed to implement innovative tools in pursuit of genuine digital transformation, from operations and supply chain to customer and employee experience. This is where, for example, you can begin to accelerate AI/machine learning, IoT, and predictive analytics for supply chain resiliency or manufacturing/operational excellence, customer portals and chatbots, and GenAI and large language models (LLMs) to create co-pilots for employee empowerment. By investing the time and effort to the lay the necessary groundwork in the first phases of the playbook, the organization can more quickly develop, test and execute digital initiatives at this stage, increasing the speed of digital transformation by as a much as tenfold.

A Dynamic Approach

Companies can attempt digital transformation without taking this kind of approach and even achieve some outcomes, but it takes significantly longer, costs much more, and the changes are less likely to take hold. On the other hand, I’ve personally seen this playbook enable companies to grow revenue ten times, reduce costs by 5 times, and scale their growth 500% without adding overhead.

There’s much more I could share about each of these aspects of the digital transformation playbook, and I plan to dig into those details in future articles. But just as important, there’s much more I’m ready to learn. I’m eager to hear from other IT leaders about their experiences and approaches to further refine my thinking. The most fundamental principle of the universe is change. Any digital transformation playbook must be a living document, and I update mine every year based upon learnings from my own experience and those in my CIO, technology, and business thought leader network. Feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn to share your thoughts.

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