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Five things all execs should know about technology (and why it matters more than ever)

We are already in a period of massive digital disruption, driven by large-scale automation, hyper-connectivity and continually-changing customer expectations. Add to the mix the far-reaching impact of the recent COVID-19 crisis, and it’s no real surprise to discover that leaders are turning to technology to build organizational resilience, by stabilizing their operations, and cultivating the ability to respond quickly to the changing market landscape.

To make the right capability investments, and prioritize the initiatives that will see the organization through the ‘new normal,’ leaders can no longer afford to view technology as a separate concern. Instead, they must place technology firmly at the core of their business strategy.

Tech at Core Diagram

These five technology concepts are key to building a responsive business that can thrive on uncertainty.

1. Technology excellence matters

In an era where value is realised by putting products and services into the hands of customers, speed is king. Your ability to take an idea from concept to cash quickly is what differentiates you from your laggard competitors, and allows you to respond to changing customer needs before you become irrelevant. Technology has become a strategic asset in enabling this swift delivery of value- but in order to do so effectively, technology excellence must be made a key concern. 

As new requirements are implemented over time, the well structured and scalable software design that your teams originally created may no longer be fit-for-purpose. Pressure to deliver quickly can lead to short-cuts and technical workarounds that aggregate over time, creating technical debt. As the name suggests, this debt results in ‘interest payments’: the additional effort required to develop features or maintain the system. 

Where to start

Start by prioritizing a clean, well-designed code base, and paying down technical debt. A messy codebase is difficult for engineers to navigate, and makes changing or adding new features slow and risky. Proactively identifying existing technical debt, and allocating time and resources to addressing it, reduces the cost of delivering crucial business outcomes, and is critical to your ability to deliver them at speed.

2. Digital talent is your key to success

Whether you want to increase your customer insights through data or adopt the latest technology to solve a customer problem, your ability to execute your business strategy really comes down to whether you have access to the right talent and digital capabilities to accomplish your goals. And, like it or not, the battle to acquire and retain digital talent continues to rage on. 

Where to start

When it comes to building digital capability, many organizations are surprised when we tell them that seeking talent externally is not the best place to begin. In fact, the largest source of raw talent can be found right under your nose, within your own organization. 

There are two actions you can take right now, to unleash this internal potential:
  • Build a culture of learning
  • Build a culture of empowerment
The ever-increasing speed of technological progress means that technologists are required to acquire new skill sets regularly, and that learning must be part of everyone’s day job. 

The role of a leader then, is to support an environment that enables this upskilling, as well as empowering teams with the autonomy to make informed decisions. Cultivating a culture where it is safe to experiment, fail, and learn, is essential for innovation. Additionally, a commitment to continual investment in personal development, despite operational pressures, creates organizational resilience, and the ability to quickly build new capabilities as they are required by the business.

3. Invest in continuous delivery & DevOps to deliver customer value faster.

Continuous delivery (CD) enables the delivery of new features and functionality to shift from slow, lengthy release cycles, to a faster, more incremental and iterative approach. DevOps is a cultural movement promoting closer collaboration between those who create software (developers) and those who operate it in production (Ops). Facilitating this collaboration in your own delivery teams is a crucial component of creating speed and organizational agility, as well as improving resiliency. Pairing CD and DevOps means that the latest feature can be released (safely) to production at the push of a button, as and when the business needs it, rather than when the deployment cycle dictates. 

Where to start

Create a value proposition for CD in your organization. Think about how often you release to production, and how long it takes to get a new concept, or bug fix into the hands of your customers. What would you like those measures to be? Next, assess your iterative development, continuous integration and test automation practices, since these are all prerequisites to delivering value faster. Think about your organizational culture for development and operations—how do these groups currently collaborate? Are there friction points you could smooth through more closely working together?

4. Building digital platforms

The concept of a ‘platform business’ is not a new one. However, not every organization needs to become a ‘platform business’ in order to benefit from investment in its digital platforms. To capitalize on customer insights data, and reduce time-to-market, it makes sense to optimize your digital technology platform internally, as a prelude to business model revolution and growth. With the right platform capabilities in place, technologists have ready-access to the resources they need to respond quickly to disruption. 

Where to start

There are three key pillars to supporting a digital platform that warrant your immediate attention:
  • API-enabled architecture
  • Delivery infrastructure
  • Self-service data

API-enabled architecture

Rather than an unwieldy monolithic architecture, enterprise systems should be built up from granular services that align with business domain capabilities, allowing these services to be independently built, deployed and run by multiple teams. These APIs can be exposed in the digital world, to create new business opportunities, and improve existing products, services and operations. 

Delivery infrastructure

With teams so often constrained by their infrastructure, it’s little wonder that the most successful organizations are the ones able to remove the organizational friction that infrastructure processes can cause. By investing in self-service access to computing environments, provisioning of development tools and runtime environments, delivery teams are able to run experiments and deliver value with fewer barriers and quicker feedback. 

Self-service data

Data is one of the greatest assets your organization has. And yet, for many companies, that data is locked away in silos, with critical insights inaccessible to the teams and departments that desperately need it to make informed decisions. To become a resilient digital organization, it is crucial to unlock the power of these insights by enabling teams to ‘self-serve’ the data they need to create value. This can be enabled through an enterprise-wide data strategy, or through simple API mechanisms, allowing teams to focus on what is important, rather than wading through organizational red tape to get the information they need to succeed. 

5. Moving from project to product thinking

Whatever your sector, having a product mindset allows an organization to move beyond a rigid, timeboxed project, to experiment and discover what customers are really asking and looking for. Shifting to a product orientation means re-thinking the team required to evolve the product over time, and allows that team a deeper knowledge of the product and their customers, to the benefit of both the customer and the organization. Looking to a longer-term outcome, rather than short-term output, means that product teams can test, learn and adapt over time.

Where to start

To begin your journey of becoming a product-centric organization, we recommend addressing two of the biggest challenges you will face: identifying the right team, with the right set of skills, and working through the funding issues that accompany a move from project-based funding.  

What next?

We hope it has become clearer, that as we head towards a new future of IT, technology is, more than ever, a critical enabler of the future success of your business. 

It will be impossible to accelerate your business strategy without putting your technical foundations in place; investing in your capability to respond and adapt to unpredictable changes. 

Now is the time for business leaders to double down on building their technical knowledge, and to begin speaking the language of technology to foster collaboration with tech leaders. Looking forward, we believe that a new breed of business technologist will emerge, providing stronger leadership in the era of digital. 

To find out more, check out Digital Transformation Game Plan

Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.

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