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Digital Fluency: Becoming a Modern Digital Business

Podcast host Sam Massey | Podcast guest Gary O'Brien
September 26, 2019 | 22 min 7 sec

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Brief summary

The pressure is on to transform your organization into one that is capable of responding to the increasing pace of change in today’s world. Gary O’Brien, Principal Consultant and Organizational Designer at Thoughtworks, talks about the challenges of digital transformation, and what it takes to become a modern digital business. If you are a business or tech leader, seeking practical approaches to tackle your transformation issues head-on, this is the podcast for you.


You need to know why your organization exists in society- what your purpose is and what value you provide that keeps you in business. Senior execs need to have the knowledge, vision and experience to understand the outcomes the business needs to achieve to move the business towards that purpose and the measure that tells them if they are achieving that outcome.

Get the right people together with the knowledge about how to achieve that outcome and let them create initiatives to do so. Initiatives exist in 3 categories: First is absolute knowledge that this initiative will move the needle of that outcome, the second is about scaling something you have seen work in other areas of the business, and the third is hypothesis-based experiments. These become the backlog of work for the company.

Your org structure won’t match that list of work- and that’s the challenge. How do you bring together people from different lines of business, who report to different people, knowing that if you bring them together- and bring more value to the customer, more often, you will be more profitable?

The biggest mistake I see companies make is that they design the work they want to do and apply a measure after the fact, to try and justify it being done. In a simplified business model you have an outcome and a measure and you then design work to move the needle of that measure, and then teams come up with a bunch of ideas to move the needle and apply their single measure, and so on. The work gets smaller and smaller until it’s autonomous and can be done by a single team. 

It’s about ‘learning, not implementing’ digital transformation. It takes years to do this. It’s a cultural change. There is no cookie-cutter plan. The building blocks are the same for every organization, but the degree to which you need to build capability for each component is individual. You need to learn what is it about your business that you need to improve and to what degree, and that learning will be constant. 

Customer expectations are very heightened. The consistency and simplicity of the experience they expect to have has changed because of technology. So, technology has to move to the boardroom. There is a minimum amount of technical knowledge execs need to have to run their company. Every organization is now a tech company.

Business versus IT has to go away. IT as a service is a massive amber flag. It says ‘we serve the business’ and therefore the objective is efficiency and being money-driven, which is an antipattern of maximizing value delivery. The opposite of that is to bring together groups of people with competencies and skills to deliver the outcome, across a broad spectrum of business and tech, who own their own architecture to deliver that value. The bucket of money to support the outcome is one bucket. (and it’s a bigger bucket than separate IT and business buckets.)

There’s no single answer about what to do first- it depends where your organization is at. We’ve spent a bit of effort thinking through how to help organizations make the decision about what to invest in first. We were influenced by the agile fluency model. The concept of fluency is like language. Depending on how long you are going overseas for, you might invest more in learning the language more deeply, and that investment would make sense for the purpose.

We created the idea of a ‘Digital Fluency Model’. We think there are five core building blocks of modern digital businesses: Frictionless operating models, design and product capability, intelligence-driven decision making, the engineering and delivery mindset and platforms. Each organization needs to identify the aspiration they have for each of those building blocks and therefore work out which one it makes sense to invest in first. 

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