How to make digital transformation a reality

"Digital transformation" may be one of the most overused buzz phrases in recent times, but it may also be one of the most misunderstood.

That’s because digital transformation is not about using technology to do the same things you’ve always done, only faster, cheaper, and better. It’s about using technology to do things that weren’t possible before—creating new products and services that drive more revenue.

For a classic example, take Amazon. The e-commerce pioneer began by selling books, then morphed into selling virtually everything else under the sun. But Amazon’s most valuable product turned out to be its own IT infrastructure, which it began marketing to the world as Amazon Web Services (AWS) in 2006. Last year, profits from AWS surpassed those from its e-commerce operations, generating $11.1 billion in revenue.

The key to Amazon’s success? Standardization and automation. Amazon was able to reduce human latency by relying on APIs and web services, enabling it to scale rapidly to meet demand while holding the line on costs.


$11 billion was AWS' revenue in 2015, surpassing Amazon's e-commerce in total revenue.

Digital transformation is about more than merely modernizing IT practices or moving everything into the cloud. It’s about moving from a mindset focused on improving business processes to one driven by improving business value. But before IT can become a strategic partner in the business, it needs to fundamentally change how it operates.

While there is no single set of rules or a specific road map to success, there are some general principles that often prove successful to cloud architects.

1. Automate, automate, automate

Many IT departments expend too many resources manually provisioning cloud apps and services. That’s because they’re still doing things the old way, using GUIs and command-line interfaces. The first step in achieving digital transformation is automating as many of these processes as possible, using REST APIs, templates, and scripts.

2. Standardize as much as you can

You can’t iterate processes and achieve incremental improvements if you’re doing everything for the first time every time. If everyone in your organization gets a custom solution tuned to their precise needs, you’ll end up reinventing the wheel over and over while getting nowhere fast. Though some customization is probably inevitable, you’ll want to standardize configurations as much as possible and limit user options to a small menu of services.

Digital transformation is about more than merely modernizing IT practices or moving everything into the cloud.

For organizations accustomed to a philosophy of surprising and delighting their internal customers, this will require a significant mind shift. Culturally you may have to overcome resistance from IT departments who pride themselves on solving any problem their users encounter, no matter what it costs in time or resources.

3. Develop your staff

As a cloud architect, you may be sitting on technology that can be used in a more efficient and integrated way, but your people don’t know how to do it yet. Automating your IT infrastructure will require them to get out of their comfort zones. New tools and skillsets will be needed, which means you’ll need to invest in training your staff or finding new hires with the requisite skills.

This may involve changing your team structure. Instead of vertically integrated teams organized around specific functions, you may need to follow the DevOps model and pull together ad hoc teams to address particular issues the business is facing. If you only change the technology, you probably will fail. You need to take an equally innovative look at your teams and how they relate to the rest of the business.

4. Pick the right pilot project

Inevitably, you’ll need to demonstrate success via a pilot project. Be sure to choose that project wisely. While it’s tempting to go for fast wins by picking the easiest thing to automate, that may not be the wisest path. When you choose a pilot project to demonstrate your new templated and industrialized IT delivery model, pick one that’s both achievable over a relatively short time frame and has the most visible impact on improving business value. That will set the tone for the rest of your automation strategy.

Bottom line: Digital transformation is about using technology to fundamentally change the nature of your business. To get there, you’ll need to automate your infrastructure, standardize your processes, and train your people. If you focus only on the technology, you’ll just end up with faster ways to do the wrong things.