The Fog of Change: Four lessons from the Frontline of Digital Transformation

The fog of change

To understand what is meant by “the fog of change” we must first go back to 1960s America and discover Harvard graduate Robert S. McNamara. A statistician under USAAF bomber command during WWII, McNamara went on to become Secretary of Defence during the Cuban missile crisis and later, President of the World Bank. As a trained systems analyst he was known for adopting this outlook in all his roles. It is for this reason that McNamara is a particularly interesting character for us at Amido, he was very much wired in the same way – technocrats trying to make optimal decisions based on evidence.

When looking back on his life, McNamara described something he called The Fog of War; “what the fog of war means is, war is so complex, it’s beyond the ability of the human mind to comprehend all the variables. Our judgement, our understanding are just not adequate.”

Now we’re not exactly dealing with the Cold War in our day-to-day but there are lessons we can learn and comparisons we can draw to help us see a way through the complexity of the technology industry today.

Technology supports businesses of all kinds and these businesses are facing an increasingly complex environment. Customers are changing, expecting and demanding more. Devices are evolving, the platforms we use are constantly changing as they’re updated, improved or replaced. Businesses are in an arms race, always under pressure to keep ahead of the curve. To add another layer of confusion, there are also a multitude of consultants offering contradictory promises that this cloud based structure or that PaaS/SaaS/IaaS is the way forward. It is from within these forever changing variables that industry leaders must carve a path for their organisations, a roadmap into a future of stable and sustainable growth.

In this sense, just as McNamara faced the Fog of War, we face the Fog of Change: there are too many variables to see through the fog with any clarity so how can we be sure to get digital transformation right?

Fear not, help is at hand. There will be no false promises as to how to actually get there, instead here are four very hard won lessons from the frontline of digital transformation.

Lesson 1: Start with identity

At its simplest the future will be defined by how people interact with things; how customers interact with devices and services, and the systems behind these. This is why it is so important to have customer identity underpin digital strategies.

Once organisations get identity in place they can build up a much more accurate picture of who their customers are, how they behave across their entire ecosystem and therefore what the customer really wants from them. No matter how big the organisation and what platform they’re on, tracking a user through the whole system is the gold dust with which companies can create genuinely useful tailored content, products, experiences or offers. As a result businesses deliver real value and usefulness – the key to engaging more deeply with customers and forming genuinely lasting relationships.

ID is the cornerstone of any digital transformation as it isn’t just the technology behind a customer’s account. ID is what allows all the customer’s devices to verify with an organisations systems securely, and for these systems to have permission to act and interact.

At Amido we’re currently working with a central government department that delivers services to citizens, often experiencing very difficult personal circumstances. These services have legal implications and are onerous processes to follow, the worst having 19 paper forms and over 40 touch points in the workflow. The capacity for that form getting lost or neglected in a pile when someone’s on holiday is huge.

Deploying access management across this department will let citizens interact digitally with these services making it:

  • Better for the citizens, who are guided through the experience quickly and have visibility of what’s happening;
  • Better for the civil servants as they spend less time pushing paper and more time focusing on the complexity of individual cases;
  • Better for the department, delivering their services more effectively

Digital transformation can be a confusing and intimidating mountain to climb, however, by starting with ID organisations can have faith that they are starting with a solid foundation.

Lesson 2: Abstraction

Abstraction is the answer to the question: How do you transform whilst maintaining business as usual?

It is the process of creating a layer over the top of legacy architecture that then works out which back-end systems are needed for any given process.

Ten years ago abstraction could only cover a large chunk of architecture at a time, making it much harder to make granular changes like adding multiple currencies or localising somewhere new. Today, abstraction doesn’t have to be so limiting. Our approach is to create abstraction at the smallest possible level of granularity: that of the smallest logical feature or function, for instance the shopping cart. When abstraction is done this way, it creates the most freedom when it comes to replacing chunks of the monolith with microservices, presenting the least possible risk to business as usual.

Amido has been working for several years with a global online retailer. It had a single monolithic platform that had been cobbled together over the years by hundreds of different developers coming and going. It was so difficult to understand and develop for that they called it the Ball of Mud.

By creating granular abstraction we were able to create a new shopping cart and checkout microservices that were switched in with no interruption in service whatsoever, and because these services were in the cloud they scaled 1000s of % on Black Friday without a hitch.

Lesson 3: Bottom up not top down

Lesson 3 is less about the what and more about the how.

From our experience it is all very well planning a transformation from a strategic level, the top down approach – and rolling in teams, but sooner or later the people on the ground are going to have to get the back office systems to talk to each other.

Bottom up is simply the process of prioritising learning about your legacy APIs early on in the process. This is important because if, for instance, you find out that your purchase order system API doesn’t support appending orders, or whatever micro-process that team actually uses every day, it makes a big difference to what can be achieved. The bottom up approach allows everyone to have a realistic perspective on what’s achievable.

One of London’s largest housing associations has proved an interesting example of this for Amido. The association’s customer facing team are called Housing Officers (HO) who, it transpires, spend 80% of their time on just six processes – one of which is raising repairs. A resident phones up with a leaky tap and the HO works through a raft of legacy systems including the property management platform, the CRM, the purchase order system etc. processing the repair. The system is so fraut that one housing officer would actually take photos of screens in one system, emailing it to herself to get it into another system. Evidently the association was ripe for automation, something that we are working closely with them to achieve.

Our starting point for this whole project was to understand the back office systems that needed to talk to each other and look into their APIs. As a result we built up a picture of what was actually possible and then designed workflows around that.

Lesson 4: Transformation is a journey

Transformation is a journey. Organisations can’t view digital transformation as a single programme with a fixed kick off and fixed go live and reasonably expect it to actually happen that way. There are too many variables. The change is too complex to realistically foresee everything.

Agile has been so embraced now as an ideology, but only on the smaller scale. There is very little chatter about thinking agile on a strategic level. According to our own CTO Simon Evans, lack of balance between upfront design and emergent design is the number one reason digital transformations fail.

Very few industry leaders would say they are comfortable committing to a transformation programme where time and budget were emergent properties of the programme rather than boundary conditions. However, that is the reality of transforming the complex system that is their business, technology, people and customers.

Ultimately that’s the real challenge facing those on the cusp of transformation:

How can you embrace the fact that emergent circumstances will change your plan for digital transformation?

Once you’ve managed to get your head around that, the other three lessons will be useful when it comes to actually implementing digital transformation.

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