Digital Economy Dispatch #187 -- Why You Will Never Be "Done" with Digital Transformation

Digital Economy Dispatch #187 -- Why You Will Never Be "Done" with Digital Transformation
9th June 2024

It’s fascinating how many people are intimidated by a blank page. When asked to start something new, they often fall apart. I’ve never had that issue. For me, the challenge is quite the opposite – knowing when to stop. Give me a topic and some time, and I’ll come up with a dozen ideas. Present me with a challenge, and I can offer numerous perspectives to explore. But ask me, "Are you done yet?" and I crumble. Isn't there always more to delve into?

While this approach to problem-solving has its drawbacks, it has also proven to be incredibly valuable in the realm of digital transformation.

A Digital Lesson

In the rapidly evolving world of technology, the concept of being "done" with digital transformation is a myth. Digital systems are perpetually in a state of evolution and flux. This ongoing journey stems from the complex capabilities they deliver, the ever-changing requirements they support, and the inevitable misunderstandings that arise during development. Despite rigorous testing and meticulous planning, no digital system can claim to be truly “finished”. Bugs emerge, user needs shift, and technologies advance, making the pursuit of perfection in any digital programme a continuous journey rather than a final destination.

Consider the core software platforms that form the basis of every organization’s digital landscape. Large-scale digital solutions demand relentless maintenance and adaptation to remain relevant and functional. This ongoing effort includes debugging, updating features, improving performance, and integrating with other systems. Digital systems require regular enhancements to meet user expectations and technological standards. Without continuous attention, software becomes obsolete. Seen in this light, the lifecycle of software systems perpetually evolves to meet the demands of its environment.

It Started with Agile…

For many of us, the concerns of delivering continuously evolving digital solutions was most clearly illustrated with Agile software practices. The Agile methodology, widely adopted for its iterative approach, recognizes the constant need for systems to evolve. Yet, it has faced some very heated debates when defining what it means to say that a task is "done". This includes issues such as:

  • The Fuzzy Finish Line: Agile states that features are "done" when they're usable, but what constitutes "usable" can be ambiguous. Does it mean basic functionality works, or is everything polished and ready for release? This ambiguity can lead to confusion and delays.

  • Speed vs. Quality: There is a concern that focusing on getting things "done" quickly might compromise quality. The challenge centres on ways to deliver features swiftly without sacrificing long-term stability.

  • Happy Users, Frustrated Experience: Just because a feature is "done" doesn't guarantee a smooth user experience. The core function might work, but users could struggle to find it, apply it, or get the support they need. Ensuring a feature is not just built but also well-integrated into the overall user journey is crucial.

To tackle these challenges, Agile teams implement several strategies to ensure effective delivery and user satisfaction. First, they focus on setting clear expectations by creating a "Definition of Done". This checklist outlines exactly what needs to happen before a feature is considered complete, ensuring that everyone is on the same page about what "done" means.

Additionally, Agile promotes delivering features in smaller chunks, which allows for frequent testing and adjustments. This incremental approach helps catch problems early, preventing quality from suffering.

Lastly, successful Agile teams keep users in focus by getting regular feedback from them. This ongoing interaction helps ensure that features are not just technically complete but also meet the real needs of the people who will be using them.

Are We There Yet?

While "done" is a helpful concept in Agile, it requires some adaptation for large digital transformation projects. In the maelstrom of digital transformation, an organization might view the successful design, delivery, and deployment of a complex software system for thousands of users as the finish line. However, with experience we recognize that this is just a starting point. Several important concepts broaden our perspective on the on-going evolution of digital systems and solutions. Here are a few that I’ve encountered.

Procurement Hurdles: Keeping Pace with Innovation

The procurement process in large complex projects can be a significant hurdle in the digital transformation journey. Lengthy approval cycles and rigid vendor selection criteria often make it difficult to keep pace with rapidly evolving technologies. For instance, public agencies require significant effort and substantial support finding vendors that offer solutions aligned with the most recent security protocols or data privacy regulations. The "done" state in this context might include implementing a flexible procurement framework that allows for iterative vendor selection based on proven capabilities and a commitment to ongoing innovation.

Requirements Management: Embracing Continuous Learning

Even within an Agile framework, defining clear requirements remains crucial for large-scale digital projects. However, the nature of these projects often necessitates a shift towards "continuous learning" instead of fixed requirements. With many digital scenarios, for example, the constant evolution of technologies places significant pressure on projects to redefine its system specifications. The "done" state becomes an ongoing process of refining requirements based on user feedback, real-world data, and emerging best practices.

Legacy System Integration: Navigating the Labyrinth

Organizations of every scale often rely on a complex web of legacy systems. The challenge lies in seamlessly integrating the new digital solutions with these existing technologies while minimizing disruption to ongoing operations. This requires a "done" state that prioritizes interoperability, ensuring that migration plans are realistic and data flows smoothly between the new system and legacy platforms in the meantime. This involves utilizing robust APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) or data migration strategies that minimize downtime and data loss.

Training and Upskilling: Empowering the Workforce

The success of any digital transformation initiative hinges on user adoption. Organizations need to invest in comprehensive training programs for employees who will be using the new system. This goes beyond basic functionality and should aim to empower staff to leverage the digital system’s full potential. The "done" state in training could be achieved by providing ongoing support resources, fostering a culture of continuous learning, and incorporating user feedback to refine training materials.

Maintenance and Security: A Continuous Vigilance

Core digital system could be in use for a long time. Ongoing maintenance and security patching remain essential to ensure the system's functionality and user safety. Organizations need to have dedicated resources allocated not only for day-to-day operations but also for incorporating emerging security updates and addressing potential vulnerabilities. These resources must be specialists in many different aspects of the system’s architecture and operation.

One Step at a Time

The journey of digital transformation is an ongoing process. By taking an iterative approach, addressing challenges like procurement hurdles, continuous learning, legacy system integration, user training, and ongoing maintenance, organizations can ensure their digital systems remain relevant, secure, and user-centric. By adopting a "never done" mindset, leaders and decision makers can unlock the full potential of digital transformation and deliver impactful services to the citizens they serve.

The lessons from Agile software delivery point to a focus on clarifying key terms such as what is meant by “done” in specific contexts. However, in digital transformation the key to success lies in a cultural shift. Embracing a growth mindset, prioritizing continual improvement, and fostering open communication across teams are crucial for navigating the complexities of digital transformation. Leaders must champion a "never done" mentality, recognizing that adapting to evolving user needs and technological advancements is the new normal.

Digital transformation is a continuous journey, and understanding this perpetual evolution is key to staying ahead in a rapidly changing world.