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This article is part of our Conference Coverage: 2018 MIT Sloan CIO Symposium: A SearchCIO guide

Digital transformation process: Align business and IT, shake legacy

At the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium, consultant Cathy Horst Forsyth explains which factors make for a successful digital transformation process and what slows companies down.

At the Strongbow Consulting Group, founder and managing partner Cathy Horst Forsyth and her team help large enterprises...

digitally transform -- specifically around network and infrastructure. From her experience with Fortune 500 companies, legacy applications and systems and misalignment of technology and business strategies can cause significant setbacks in the digital transformation process.

In this SearchCIO interview from the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium, Horst Forsyth details the trends and challenges that she's seeing in enterprises that are going through the digital transformation process and what's needed to be successful.

Editor's note: This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

What parts of the enterprise are leading the charge in the digital transformation process?

Cathy Horst Forsyth: You see it all on the edges of the business where we have lines of business working directly with their customers, with their individual goals. I think where we see digital transformation being most progressive and most successful is when those lines of business -- at the front end of the business -- are working closely with their technology partners. What doesn't seem to work well, or at least what can fall back and have negative consequences is when the lines of business are transforming and driving digital transformation that does not align with a corporate strategy and isn't compliant with [an organization's] technology strategy. So, where we see the most success, whether it's marketing, sales or any particular functional area within the firm, is really that alignment with the business executive and the technology team to make sure the execution is both successful and compliant with the overall goals of the organization.

What parts of the enterprise are less far along in the digital transformation process?

You really can't underestimate the [extent to which] legacy infrastructure systems and applications tether large companies down.
Cathy Horst Forsythfounder and managing partner, Strongbow Consulting Group

Horst Forsyth: Again, it's kind of hard to generalize from my perspective. I can't say one department or function is necessarily behind. But I would say that with organizations that are tethered to legacy applications, legacy infrastructure or legacy systems, it's very difficult to dig themselves out of that. It's probably not for lack of wanting to transform digitally, but you really can't underestimate the [extent to which] legacy infrastructure systems and applications tether large companies down. Again, that's one of the reasons [Strongbow] focuses specifically on the largest of enterprises. It is a lot easier to start 'greenfield' and to drive innovation when you haven't been a classic Fortune 500 company for the past 50 or 100 years. Even though it's about culture, leadership and many other things, the legacy infrastructure really can be an impediment. Where there are sunk costs or where it's difficult to even understand where that infrastructure resides -- which is an issue at times -- we really see those organizations being hindered.

What kinds of strategies are effective in getting the entire enterprise to the same level of digital prowess?

Horst Forsyth: Once again, I go back to the top executives and the executive committee and [having the ability to] really understand and articulate business strategies. So, what are we trying to accomplish? Why are we trying to accomplish it? Anything can be framed in terms of opportunity or threat. Having everyone understand that simplistic business strategy is definitely a forerunner to then understanding how to leverage technology and achieving [digital transformation]. I think that, to some extent, technology strategy should be driven across the business -- including on the front lines -- but it needs to be monitored so that it's consistent and compliant with corporate standards. And I think that the executives need to monitor and keep track of what's going on, but allow it to go on and grow in a flexible fashion.

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