Saad Ayub is a senior information technology strategist who has helped Business Talent Group clients develop new IT operating models and assess technology-enabled change programs. Here, he talks about how companies can align IT and business needs, think holistically about emerging technologies, and accelerate digital transformations.
Saad’s experience—which includes applied research in artificial intelligence, management consulting, and leading technology organizations of large corporations—has given him a holistic perspective. His views on how to think about emerging technologies and digital transformation are informed by his in-depth technology knowledge (PhD in AI), broad business expertise (management consultant at McKinsey& Company), and lessons learned from leading multiple digital transformations (as a CIO and consultant).
Your consulting practice focuses on helping companies expedite digital transformations. What does that entail?
I help clients in a number of areas. First is creating digital transformation strategies that will align IT with the business and ensure that real, business-driven objectives are the focus—not just the technologies. Second is planning how to sequence the work. That entails building an effective digital transformations program and identifying the right organizational model. I also help clients develop the target technology solution landscape. That includes helping to optimize in-house resources, identifying delivery partners, selecting technology products, and building the right governance model for the program.
How do you keep up with what seems to be a blindingly fast pace of change in the digital landscape?
Digital transformation is a journey and not a one-time project. It is about developing a culture that focuses on continuously improving its current state through the effective use of technology. That means defining the major strategic business drivers, understanding technological and organizational constraints, aligning all organizations around an objective, and then executing in an incremental fashion. Picking the right technology is important, but it is not the driver of a digital transformation. In too many places, I’ve seen digital transformations miss the real opportunity as they become more of a techie project, implementing a cool technology.
Instead, I try to help clients play at the intersection of business imperatives and technology solutions frameworks. First, clarify what’s driving the need for change, and then figure out how to sequence the solution. To me, this is more about building a solution framework that answers questions like when to bring in new technologies vs. modernize existing ones, what external technology/delivery services to use, and which partnership to leverage. Ideally, there will be things you can do upfront that aren’t as dependent on making too many changes to your legacy environment. At the same time, you have to identify where and when you are going to do the foundational work that will eventually transform it. And, most importantly, you have to think through organizational implications.
What I’ve found is that if companies don’t think holistically about emerging technologies, every division will do their own thing. Someone will start to experiment with machine learning, someone else will do their own AI planning—and suddenly all that functional expertise will be distributed in the organization. No-one wants to have to launch another application rationalization program in the future to try to clear the mistakes of their current digital transformation programs.
Speaking of AI, how do you help clients figure out which buzzwords are worth chasing?
Once again, from my perspective, the key thing to focus on during a digital transformation is the business objectives and not the new technologies. I start by helping clients figure out which strategic business drivers to focus on. After that, it’s easy to drill into the technology needs and assess how different technologies can help you.
In my view, there are five business drivers for digital transformations:
- Seamless interaction with customers. The easier you make it for your customers to interact with you, the more revenue they will bring.
- Intelligent interaction with customers. Are you leveraging the knowledge of your organization to optimize the customer experience and outreach to customers?
- Your product portfolio. Can you come up with a digital product that complements your product portfolio? Does it change the way you manage the rest of your offerings? Are there digital products that will improve the customer’s experience with your physical products?
- The alignment of your infrastructure and your business model. If you are in a cyclical business, it makes sense for you to go to the cloud, because otherwise, you will spend too much money on infrastructure that is not needed during off-peak times. If you’re not in a cyclical business, you may think about it differently.
- How efficiently you are working. Can technology help your people do their jobs faster, better, smarter? Should you focus on digitizing your internal processes or go for more transparency through the better use of data internally?
The first three items on that list are revenue drivers, while the others are about internal efficiency. I find that both with digital transformation and the use of technologies like AI, the focus often becomes the technology. That’s when you get into trouble, because you’re just chasing what’s hot at the moment.
You’ve worked in many different industries. Can you talk about a few ways that digital challenges play out in particular ones?
Let’s take the retail industry. For them, the real challenge is to figure out where they play—whether that’s primarily online, or multi-channel, or are focused on developing the store of the future. If you already have a store, how do you create a digital experience that complements it? If you’re an online retailer, should you open a physical store? Everyone is trying different things.
Beyond that, I see an opportunity for retailers to use technology to understand how people interact with their stores. Connecting the multi-channel experience is table stakes. The next step is not just about improving the digital experience, but using that information to make smarter decisions about everything from inventory to pricing and supply chain.
The other industry in which I’ve worked a lot is insurance. The insurance industry was once on the forefront of technology, because they’ve always had to use analytics to price their products. But over time, those legacy technologies became a burden, and insurance companies are now being challenged to think of different ways to offer their products and improve the customer journey. Creating seamless customers interactions is a huge driver for the industry, especially in the digital world. So they will have to figure out where they can leverage their legacy tech and where to start anew.
The changing technology landscape requires one to keep assessing digital projects mid-flight. One of my projects in the publishing world began with an imperative to build a reading tablet for kids. Then, we realized that the hardware landscape was changing too quickly, and the client’s real value proposition lay in software. So we pivoted the project to delivering a browser-based reading solution for Mac and PC. The launch of the iPad changed the landscape yet again, and as a result, we had to change our priorities to ensure that an iPad solution was part of the deliverable.
Let’s talk about how your work as an independent consultant might differ from other resources companies might engage for a digital transformation.
I think the key question is whether a client wants a solution that’s based on a third party’s methodology and uses their company’s culture to come up with a solution—or one where external expertise is embedded into their company and used to accelerate a digital transformation solution that’s owned internally.
Independent consultants do not employ a full-time team for which they need to find work. That has a couple of implications. First, it means their advice is unbiased. It also means they can work more effectively to develop internal skills. If you work with a large consulting firm, they will bring both senior and junior resources, and you will get an end product. With independent consultants, you will not only end up with the end product, but you may actually have much greater knowledge transfer and skill improvement than if you outsource everything.
I have an enormous amount of specialized expertise and experience, and I can work in more flexible ways. I can advise senior stakeholders about the most likely risks involved with a particular project, based on my experience. I can support and mentor their internal teams. Another way I can help drive large transformations is by taking on an interim leadership position. If your transformation impacts multiple organizations in the enterprise, it’s usually better to have a leader whose sole objective is to drive the transformation.
What trends or issues do you think will be most challenging in the future?
Remember that digital transformation is about a business journey and not just hot technology.
Right now, it’s really hard for companies to get the business model right. Technology is one thing, but how does your business model need to evolve? Figuring out what mechanisms need to be in place to drive future evolution is the key to successful transformation. Do you need to fundamentally transform your products or will technology simply complement your existing portfolio? Do you need to leverage what’s happening to enhance your value prop?
I also find that experience is important in this space. Doing technology for the sake of technology is not impactful for the business. So the main issue is that some clients are launching a whole transformation but without thinking how to generate impact.
Another common trend I am seeing is that people who have experience with certain digital technologies (e.g., cloud or mobile) or a specific digital initiative (digital marketing or analytics) approach digital transformations from that lens. It goes back to the old saying, “If all you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Unless you approach a digital transformation holistically, you won’t get the full benefit of it.
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