If your Technology Teams are Serving the Business, you’re not Transforming

One of the reasons why many companies find digital transformation so difficult is that their technology teams “serve the business” — and their transformation efforts are often intended to increase the level of that service.

This results in disappointment, because in the best case, they get more of the same with added technology but without the desired business results, and nothing approaching transformation. But more importantly, the business results are usually lacklustre, regardless of how the “transformation” is considered to be going.

But isn’t “serving the business” a good thing?

Here’s what it usually means in practice:

  • The business makes prioritized feature requests that they pass to the technology teams.
  • The technology teams produce a roadmap, and deliver these features with the given resources.

There are variations — maybe there’s a deeper discussion about business value, perhaps a gating process or a review board, or maybe the technology teams collaborate with the business teams to help define the features.

But in the end, the technology teams are held accountable for delivering technology, and the business is held accountable for delivering the business results using that technology.

This superficially sounds like a reasonable division of responsibilities — business does business and technology does technology.

What’s the problem?

In digital business, rather than the technology being used to deliver business results, the technology itself delivers the business results.

That is, if you build an ecommerce website, there’s nobody in the business “using” that site in the way a sales person would “use” a cash register to make sales — the site itself (and associated marketing) is generating the sales.

Yet too often, the people building the site aren’t responsible for the results, they are just responsible for building the site.

That’s like having a sales person be responsible for updating the CRM, entering the sale into the register and following a script, rather than having them responsible for the actual sales they are making.

Sure, it can sort of work, but it’s not very effective, and it doesn’t make much sense.

What’s the solution?

Just like you can’t take a sales person who knows only how to use the tools and follow a script and give them full responsibility for sales, you can’t simply take a technology team who knows how to deliver the product and give them full responsibility for the business results.

But similarly, even the most talented sales person isn’t necessarily going to have the capability to build a technology product that delivers business results.

It requires a leader who has deep knowledge of the customer, the business, the industry technology and the product and enabling technologies. It requires that that person has full business context in which to make decisions, has full responsibility for the business results their product is intended to deliver, and is a peer of other leaders with similar responsibilities and is trusted with the business to the same level.

Transformation happens when this leader and the technology team they lead is asked to solve the business problem, rather than deliver technology.

They need:

  • Responsibility for delivering the business results their products are intended to produce — usually to provide value to customers, or to serve customers in some particular way
  • Remit to make decisions about how best to solve the problem — meaning they need the right strategic context and business information to make those decisions, and trust in the decisions they make
  • Resources to deliver what is needed—not just the technology resources, but non-technology resources such as marketing, support or operations (and including core IT services)
  • and the appropriate Role to carry this out in the company — that is, they need to be at the appropriate level in the organisation for this level of Responsibility, Remit and Resources, usually at an equivalent level to other executives with similar Roles, not reporting through an IT organisation.

A transformation of this scale will disrupt other leaders within the company. That is why it is hard.

Are your digital leaders “serving the business”, or are they transforming it?

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