Digital self-sufficiency: Is IT ready to decentralise ownership?

by Jim Berne30 Jul 2019

Effective digital transformation doesn’t begin with technology…but it often stalls on it. At Ricoh, we’ve built up strong lines of communication between business units and created an unprecedented level of collaboration and transparency in our own transformative initiatives. Yet even with shared momentum, it can be challenging bringing the vision to fruition if traditional IT bottlenecks can’t be unplugged.

The real crunch for any digital transformation comes when trying to translate strategy into action. At that point, IT carries the lion’s share of executing changes to processes and technologies across the organisation. Other business units, like marketing or HR or operations, may have a clear picture of what they need to achieve – but the technical expertise needed to alter processes, take up new software, or update infrastructure don’t sit in their units. Instead it is bottled up in a single team, often comprising of just a few individuals with some specialised skill sets in key disciplines.

For lean IT teams, the struggle is real. After a decade of being asked to do more with less, mid-market organisations really don’t have much more to give, and that means something has to give.

My advice to business leaders, IT peers and colleagues is to relinquish your historical dominion of the technical black arts to the business units themselves and aim for technical self-sufficiency.

Self-sufficiency is not self-service

The distinction is important. Digital self-sufficiency involves building up technical and analytical capabilities within each line of business that can identify, analyse and execute technical changes needed to the platforms, systems and processes in their unit.

The goal of self-sufficiency is to make each business unit better able to maximise tech-enabled productivity and opportunity.

IT retains the big picture, steps up to orchestrate on cross-unit requirements and remains accountable for good technical practices and investment decisions. The outcome for IT teams is less time caught up in transactional problem solving and more time focused on strategy, value creation and moving transformative initiatives along.

Capability Uplift

What is the capability framework for digital self-sufficiency? BU’s will need to invest in some uplift for this model to work and IT should play an active role in defining the skill-set injection needed.

You’re looking for “T-skills”; a broad understanding of digital and technical matters, ideally coupled with sound to deep existing domain knowledge aligned to the BU’s function, responsibilities and core competencies. At Ricoh, we’ve found business and systems analysts to be a great match. In fact, both our Finance and People and Culture units have analysts engaged directly in their teams, coordinating with IT on everything from cloud and SaaS adoption to resources for digital content.

Operational Effectiveness

The past decade has been characterised by an intense focus on productivity and efficiency. But if a team spends 50% of its time focused on the wrong things, does it really matter how efficiently they’re getting those things done?

Operational effectiveness is back in fashion, placing more emphasis on ensuring a business is doing the right things, and doing them better than competitors.

Digital self-sufficiency models are inherently supportive of Ops Effectiveness and more so if the focus starts with customer facing processes. More so again when doing the right thing includes removing drudge work from inside the unit, embracing automation and applying human endeavour to value creation.

Autonomy over Time

Digital self-sufficiency is a light lift and shift of some activities and accountabilities from IT into business units. It’s not the only model that supports digital transformation, but it is one that tends to play well with others.

It’s not a silver bullet and the transition to autonomy is itself subject to solid due diligence, planning and ongoing collaborative governance. It’s best earned over time based on the capabilities the BU’s invest in. Transparency comes as a necessary condition of autonomy – not to police what each business unit does, but to identify opportunities for collaboration or risk-factors that may inadvertently emerge.

A decentralised approach to technology ownership makes sense because technology is, and always will be, just a tool with which we can get closer to goals. The capability framework that we build around digital self-sufficiency should emphasise that at every level of every business unit – including, and maybe especially IT – so that we don’t get fixated on technology at the expense of our people and their purpose.