Forming a Digital Transformation Team

February 21, 2024
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A sure sign that a company is thinking too narrowly about digital transformation (DT) is that they view it as a project. “In Q3, we’ll be switching payroll providers, installing LED fixtures, and digitally transforming” — said no business ever. Digital transformation is a strategy actively shaping the future of industry. Resisting it signals acceptance of inefficiency, irrelevancy, and insolvency.

Companies that want to continue growing and succeeding are leading initiatives to integrate digital technology into all areas of their business. In this era of rapid and fundamental changes, businesses are finding new ways to operate and deliver value to their customers. Who are the people making this heavy lift? Enter the digital transformation team.

Armillaria ostoyae – How Nature Teaches Us Digital Lessons

Better known as the honey fungus, Armillaria ostoyae begins as a tiny spore, so small it’s almost invisible to the naked eye. It spreads by attaching itself to coniferous trees and sustains itself by siphoning nutrients from the forest floor. The organism can then reproduce sexually by combining two different mushroom’s genetic material, or asexually using its own genetic material — effectively cloning itself. Either way, newer offspring will have mycelial networks that fuse with the parent organism, and the larger entity will continue to coordinate as a single organism. One of these organisms can span miles of the planet’s surface area, and a thriving Armillaria ostoyae will devastate their population of host trees. After enough time passes, the old trees decay, and their stored-up nutrients return to the soil. As the forest naturally refreshes, it creates fuel for new growth.

Thriving, new-growth forests are a lot like digitally transformed businesses. Both have likely undergone a stressful period of change in order to be in better shape after the transformation. Let’s also be real about the fact that members of the DT team may be viewed as parasitic spores by the rest of the business. Investments won’t be made on other issues, energy will need to shift from workers’ day jobs to the DT initiative, and things might look ugly while they are being changed.

Will things be painful during the change? Yes, but change is necessary.

As we consider other biological functions of this massive mushroom, it is even more remarkable that it shares so much in common with digitally transformed businesses. Impressively, the organism can receive sensory input from one extremity and turn it into action in an opposite extremity using its interconnected network. A digitally transformed business will operate with this same capability, tapping into the data transmitted from the edges of the network to the central systems that drive decisions.

Do you feel prepared to sell the digital transformation strategy and follow through on delivering a digitally transformed business?

The First Team

DT-related projects were a tough sell a few years back. My team had spent years overcoming executive pushback against connecting the plant floor with an IT system, with most of the drive coming from, of all places, the IT department. For many reasons, some related to my dissatisfaction with the execs, I had decided moving on was in my best interest. The timing of my decision was unfortunate, as the project got approval while I was interviewing for new positions. Less than a month after the project started, I bid adieu to our small team consisting of the platform vendor, some operations managers, and maintenance staff from the PoC (proof of concept) site; nobody moved in to fill my shoes as the IT liaison.

Fast forward a couple of years — there was a changing of the guard, and I rejoined the DT team as an outside consultant to find that an astonishing amount of progress had been made. Many had thought this would be an IT-driven project, but it turned out to be well within the capabilities of the Operations group because we had wisely selected a platform that met them at their level of technical ability. They had connected machines, designed screens, and had a tight feedback loop between the frontline supervisors which led to additional enhancements managed in a rudimentary requirements backlog. The platform we had chosen also happened to be an open platform, which enabled integration with the client’s custom ERP system. This allowed us to score numerous wins and provide tangible value.

Most of the experience from the first site was adaptable to other locations. We had figured out how to organize assets into a hierarchical structure. We made decisions about how to represent machine data points so they would be meaningful to the mechanic, operator, and platform end-user alike. We figured out what automated events needed to happen to refresh information like production schedules and when to do counter resets. The things we did at that first site were like writing the genetic code found in nature. When it came time for this metaphorical mushroom to reproduce, i.e., deploy the solution at the next location, we could clone a previous project and simply re-point the machine connections to the new site’s machinery.

Without a doubt, the contributions from the team itself were major reasons for our success. Despite the involvement of third parties, like myself and the platform vendor, we put a strong focus on developing their in-house capabilities to support and expand at a controlled rate to the rest of the business. With all the value we demonstrated during the PoC, the client faced a quandary with the expansion plans. Would they leave the core team as-is, grow through hiring, or contract with another third-party System Integrator to accelerate expansion?

Working with Systems Integrators

Many Systems Integrators (SI) treat their involvement in Digital Transformation as discrete projects, they drive hard so they can achieve results at predetermined milestones. Often, they’ll specialize in a handful of platforms that they (1) know well and (2) have relationships with vendors to promote the solution in exchange for commissions. This is a good thing, in some ways. Delivering Value during successive sprints creates wins and regularly demonstrates value to project sponsors. The DT team banks political capital with each of these wins.

When the SI and client are aligned on technologies and DT goals, platform implementation projects can jump to light speed. The trade-off is that it can be challenging to keep the client involved when they are being pulled away by non-DT demands of their role. The SI may exploit their position by withholding knowledge from the client that they would need to eventually become self-sufficient, or the SI may be working too closely with a platform vendor and they don’t recommend the best solution to the client.

Building the Digital Transformation Team

Putting together the right team from the very start is essential for leaders of DT projects so they can have a successful and sustainable initiative. Filling these roles addresses many of the risks these initiatives face — gaining and protecting buy-in from leadership, creating and adhering to implementation plans, managing feedback, and eventually handing off to the appropriate support personnel.

  1. A Product Owner
    • This role has the authority and responsibility to determine whether or not the team is building what the business needs.
  2. An Architect
    • A technical role that makes decisions about the technologies that will be used to run the digital systems.
  3. Developers
    • Automation
      • The technicians or mechanics who program and configure endpoints on the plant floor.
    • Communications
      • The network engineers who facilitate communication from central systems out to the edge and back.
    • Platform
      • The team responsible for organizing, and sometimes presenting, the data that flows into DT systems.
    • Data Analysts
      • Specialists mainly concerned with manipulating and presenting information that drives business decisions.
  4. IT Liaison
    • A role that goes between the DT team and the IT department to provision network resources that support the DT initiative. The liaison also works to prepare the Helpdesk to eventually play a supporting role in the solution — documenting network security decisions, writing processes to onboard new users, updating the Service Catalog, etc.
  5. Leadership Liaison
    • One who goes between the DT team and Leadership to provide information and requests.

The basis of the list included in this article was adapted from the 4.0 Solutions Mastermind Program. These roles may or may not all be different individuals, and the size of the team should scale according to the complexity of the business.

The Consultant’s Role

Ultimately, the business will need to stand on the metaphoric shoulders of this team to operate as a digitally transformed company. The DT team’s tools will be the lifeline that keeps the business modern and competitive. Imagine a manufacturer existing today whose communication and process technologies got stuck in the 1980s? Are there any manufacturers doing business competitively without email or PLCs? These companies either transformed or died decades ago.

To address this, I suggest adding a consultant to the team as the IT liaison with an IT & Management background. While the DT initiative aims to fundamentally modernize how businesses operate, and the operations team will play a huge role in designing and using these solutions, they will ultimately run on IT-managed systems and connect over IT networks. IT already has the monitoring tools, troubleshooting experience, and systems to handle support requests and manage requirements backlogs. To them, the DT initiative will look, smell, and feel a lot like their last major ERP rollout or WiFi network deployment. They are used to making these sorts of plans and managing the change that ensues.

In the long run, it will pay to have this team up-to-speed on the business’s chosen DT solution, and it will pay to have expertise from the IT and management/operations domain to act effectively as the liaison. If your current IT director or CIO is a bottleneck holding the initiative back, R.M is prepared to excel in this role and make sure DT initiatives move forward, and IT doesn’t fall behind.