Driving digital transformation: Strategies from a CIO-turned-digital guru

Isaac Sacolick explains how two practices -- aligning agile development with IT operations, and improving data quality -- can help CIOs in driving digital transformation.

Isaac Sacolick, principal at consulting firm StarCIO and a former CIO, believes more companies are waking up to...

the need of performing in a digital economy.

"Sometimes the challenge is an existing competitor that's starting to put direct pressure on them. Sometimes it's a startup trying to lure businesses away; sometimes it's an experience that didn't exist before and [organizations] don't know how to execute on it," said Sacolick, speaking to roomful of IT executives at the recent CDM Media CIO Summit in New York.

But no matter the origin of the particular digital threat, many companies don't know how to respond, according to Sacolick. And the panic is palpable.

"You can start sensing it and hearing it at the C-level when there is unclear direction over how to mount a counter attack or go on the offensive around this," Sacolick said.

Sacolick, who served as CIO at Greenwich Associates, McGraw Hill Construction and BusinessWeek, has looked at digital opportunities and threats from many perspectives. He began his career working at startups. When he moved on to become an enterprise business unit CIO, his charter was to help traditional businesses become digital, competitive and more customer-facing with their technologies. His book, Driving Digital, The Leader's Guide to Business Transformation through Technology comes out in August.

For CIOs charged with helping their companies go digital -- that is, enabling them to connect with customers, partners and employees via digital technologies -- the responsibility is a double-edged sword, in Sacolick's view. CIOs are being tasked with developing customer-facing applications and nimble platforms that help their companies compete in this new digital marketplace; at the same time, IT budgets in 2017 are expected to rise only by 2.7%, he said. CIOs are being asked to do more with less -- and a lot of that "less" is going to maintain the status quo, not to digital transformation.  

"CIOs are spending a lot of time in their legacy world trying to make legacy applications more efficient, trying to make them more secure and struggling to find the dollars to really invest in digital," Sacolick said. "That's the challenge of our time, that's the challenge of our industry and that's the challenge of the CIO role."

How to break free? Sacolick said an action plan informed by agile practices and quality data will help CIOs in driving digital transformation. Many CIOs have already adopted agile development practices and taken advantage of the cloud, of course. And data governance has always been a top priority for CIOs, according to Sacolick.

But there are elements of those practices, he proposed, that need to be more digitally oriented -- and more customer-centric.

For starters, CIOs first need to accept that their primary function is as a business leader, if they aspire to help their companies perform in the digital marketplace. While the cloud and other new technologies certainly offer IT organizations tremendous opportunities to automate and optimize their systems, those CIOs who become too invested in the technology nuts and bolts are not the IT leaders who are driving digital transformation, he said.  What they need to do is find people who can automate their IT environments in such a way that allows for efficient and safe application deployment.

"CIOs need to be spending most of their time solving business issues, working with business teams, figuring out new markets, ... figuring out what data their business leaders are lacking, finding gaps in user experiences, finding new ways to partner with technology providers and product providers," Sacolick said, in an interview after the conference.

"They therefore need really strong lieutenants who can manage the operating aspects of digital transformation," he said.

This will require finding people who can automate their IT environments in such a way that allows for efficient and safe application deployment. That will require the operations teams to become more aligned with the agile environment and developers need to be more operationally focused, he said -- an approach widely known as DevOps.

"That two-way dialogue between the developers and the operations teams is what I call DevOps," he said.

In Sacolick's version of DevOps, developers and operators continue to operate as separate teams, but they are engaging in a more "streamlined set of dialogues."  

Tactics for DevOps, Sacolick-style

Sacolick enumerated some of the tactics to enable such an environment:

  • On the development side, developers need to get to a code complete early in their development cycle to enable the QA teams to do regression tests; moreover, 30% of a sprint should be targeted to technical debt.
  • Developers handing off a release to the operating group should package it with enough instructions so that operators know how to support that particular application.
  • Developers also have to have a role around becoming more data oriented. "That often means setting applications to collect information around the user experience so that we can get smarter about how the application is being used and how it can be improved," he said.
  • Developers need to be trained to have a clear understanding about the type of data they should collect and the type of data that they are not allowed to collect.
  • On the operating side, operators need to be more data oriented and should be able to tell when there is a performance problem with specific areas of an application.
  • Operators should aim to resolve 90% of business incidents without escalating them to the development team. Because a lot of IT operations tasks can now be automated, the operating group should only escalate issues that have been determined to be a code defect. They also need to be very explicit with the developers about what's required to deploy changes.

Driving digital transformation: Becoming a data-driven organization

Putting metrics around customer analytics can drive behaviors that propel better business decisions, Sacolick said, and cited increased revenue and reduced costs as the top two benefits of improving an organization's data quality.

"Improving data quality calls for a multi-prong strategy," he said. "Part of it you are going to get from big data technologies and part of it you are going to get by hiring data science talents. But big data technologies are still hard and data scientists are hard to come by."

As an alternative he suggested training executives to become more data-driven and empowering emerging data scientists in the organizations with self-service business intelligence tools. This in turn will excel their ability to provide more analytics and insights, and better decision-making within their organization, Sacolick said.

For initiating a citizen data science program, he suggested CIOs find business units in the organization that should be working with data but are lacking in tools and practices, and then partner with business leaders who are open to experimentation.

"Find a couple of people in that group who are technology hungry; give them some new tools and work out the governance process with them in terms of how to use those tools to deliver insights ... and package that up into a center of excellence and roll that out department by department," he suggested.

Next Steps

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