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Taking the digital plunge: transformation without tears

Introduction

On 2 March 2016, The Realization Group, together with The Test People – Centre4 Testing, DMW Group and Adaptive Consulting, hosted a round table on digital transformation, an umbrella term that encompasses a range of technological and organisational changes companies can make to ensure their businesses become more efficient and more responsive to customers. (For an in-depth article on the initiative, click here.) Financial services firms are increasingly looking to undertake digital transformations, with the prospect of faster product releases, lower-touch customer environments and a wealth of valuable business analytics. But to achieve those objectives, they need to do some homework and consider a wide range of factors.

Mike O’Hara of The Realization Group facilitated a wide-ranging discussion led by Andy Slight, of The Test People, John Marks, Director at Adaptive Consulting, Jon Davis, a FinTech leader and former CEO of FIS Europe, and Jonathan Bell, Client Services Director for DMW Group. Their main message: digital transformation involves much more than hardware and software. It’s also about people, processes and testing.

A holistic look at the business

At the heart of any discussion regarding digital transformation is a simple question: would it make business sense? It’s not hard to find executives enticed by the idea of turning their businesses into frictionless money-spinners where faster, more sophisticated IT systems lead to lower costs and give front-line sales staff all the information they need to generate new revenues. But as Jonathan Bell of DMW Group says, transformation can be “scary”.

Companies need to first consider the cost-benefit ratios of a transformation and, equally, how the new systems and processes would fit with the underlying business. Even after all that, there is an important ingredient needed for any digital transformation. Andy Slight of The Test People says companies need to remember that they can make wholesale changes to their systems, but if they do not factor in testing it will all make little sense. Having much more automation but armies of manual testers defeats the whole purpose of a transformation.

The reason testing is so vital stems from a key aspect of digital transformation: an emphasis on increasing agility through processes such as continuous delivery, the method by which IT teams produce software faster by releasing it quickly to customers and then making changes based on user experiences. Successful continuous delivery systems involve huge amounts of testing and that requires automation. What good testing provides, the audience heard, is quality control. In a transformed company, it also means much more communication, feedback and clarity about requirements.

Legacy liberation

Often, digital transformation involves replacing legacy systems. The problem, as panellists noted, is that the older the system the harder it can be to replace. System documentation may not be available. Requisite skill sets are in short supply and thus expensive. And an end-to-end overhaul can become extremely costly. One solution the panellists offered: break the work down into components and start small. That allows a company to bake in automation right from the start.

But where should a company begin? One suggested method for identifying candidates for transformation:  look for projects where humans are not as good as machines. The flipside: see what processes your business has where humans add real value and then get them the data to empower them to do their job.

Jon Davis says it’s important to realise that digital transformation does not mean doing everything in one big bang. Rather, he told the audience, companies should try to look ahead, say, five years and focus on the processes they will need.

The biggest challenge panellists noted involved not technology but human communication. Interfacing with different systems often involves a high amount of reverse engineering. As Slight of The Test People says, there might be systems that are 30, 40 or even 50 years old. Some of those could be the result of mergers and acquisitions and inherited systems, which meant that the original IT staff were probably long gone. What’s more, as technology has advanced over the years, the amount of variation and the sheer number of different processes employed at different companies has exploded.

It’s little surprise, then, that making code changes in legacy systems can be a daunting prospect. And to put all that in perspective, mistakes could become very costly very quickly. The risk from a system loss can be quantified simply by considering the amount of revenue that would be lost while the system was down.

People power

As challenging as transformation projects might be, the rewards can be enormous. The key, the panellists said, came down to people. Unless a company had the right people to deliver the technology, transformation could not happen. At the same time, once you did start to make those changes, people could be more empowered, particularly in the front office.

“You always need the right people. And a handful of good people can lift the whole team,” Bell of DMW says. There is technological transformation and there is people transformation, and ultimately those two had to be woven together.

Adaptive’s John Marks emphasised the empowerment of people that took place when they were given intelligent analytics that resulted from a digitally transformed system. Jon Davis meanwhile described a business environment where customer demand was increasingly leading the way to technological change.

For Slight, transformation is ultimately about engaging with the end-client in a different way. “But there’s no point if your testing cycles are in the old traditional testing fashion,” he says.  “If you’re going to get involved in a digital transformation project, you can’t leave testing alone.”

Even highly automated testing involved a focus on people. The point about digital transformation from a testing point of view, says Slight, is delivering functionality to the end user quickly. “You have to do testing in a more intelligent, efficient way,” he said. That meant automation, cloud-based technology and a raft of changes to enable companies to speed up releases. “All this comes together in a sort of holistic view of how you do testing,” he said.

Digital transformation thus may be challenging, complicated and even a little scary. But the panellists were in no doubt that provided a company focused on the right types of projects, assembled the right people and put in place the right testing systems, it would be well worth the effort.