Kevin Borley interviews Robin Block - Head of Engagement at, and an observer of business transformation

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The business of Insightive is to mine insights from leaders in business trasformation: “We interview business leaders recognised for guiding companies in times of rapid change. These leaders are driving the transformation necessary to keep their organisations competitive into the next decade”.

Robin Block, Head of Engagement at Bloor’s partner Insightive interviews business leaders, experts in their field, who guide companies through periods of rapid change. In conversation with Bloor’s Kevin Borley, he provides us with insights into business transformation to the Mutable Business. Robin talks to a lot of CIOs and I think that he can give us an insight into the way the more advanced of them see digital transformation and the “mutable business” – and into some of the barriers to adoption.

Kevin Borley (KB): I think we could be living through one of the most interesting historical periods so far, when the way society works is changing absolutely, as a consequence of the easy availability of universal communications and cheap digital technology. I note stories about mobile phone banking in Africa which make my UK banking look primitive. But how far do you think we are into this journey to digital transformation overall? Is it happening only in a few places where there is effectively no legacy technology to compete with?

Robin Block (RB): In my opinion, the journey into true digital transformation (as described by Razvan Cretu (Head of IT, CMS UK) here) is still embryonic. All the really cool stuff that the internet can offer hasn’t been invented yet, and we know that. The best an established organisation can hope for is to become transformation ready, truly agile and try to shed the constraints of a legacy environment both physically and culturally. Very hard to achieve, but listen to Paul Coby, IT Director at the John Lewis Partnership, for an insight into the joy of technology agility when you do manage it: here.

KB: Nevertheless, I am minded of that other great transformation, the Renaissance. With hindsight, it was all about Michaelangelo painting your bathroom ceiling; at the time, for most people, it was about papal armies burning and looting their way across your back garden – and making sure you paid your protection money (aka “taxes”) to the few people who could afford to employ a genius as a servant (now, that’d be a great product idea, “genius as a service”). So, in the context of digital transformation, is the average CIO you interview excitedly contemplating a wonderful digital future – or constantly scared that even he might be automated out of existence (by the sort of AI Razvan Cretu talks about here? Or both, in a state of what Richard Sykes calls “paranoid optimism“?

RB: I agree with Richard about “paranoid optimism”; most CIO’s I see have a focus on the immediate future. Yes, there’s always room for horizon scanning but for the many CIO’s that I speak with, it’s dealing with the reality of a complex environment and maintaining a functional operation.

KB: I have noticed a couple of Insightive interviews around resistance to change, from Mike Sturrock (CIO, DX Group) here – and follow the link therein–and Nathan Hayes (IT Director, Osborne Clarke) here. So, the journey to the “mutable enterprise” isn’t trivially straightforward, despite the wonderful capabilities of the latest iPhone in the TV ads. Who do people actually at the cutting edge of transformation go to for help and advice?

RB: In my view, the strongest source of influence for CxO’s are industry peer groups; listen to Chris Hewertson (CTO, glh Hotels) on Influences from your peer network here, perhaps. That’s an area that Insightive really focuses on. In an age of saturated marketing where CxO’s are continually bombarded with hype, the signal to noise ratio is out of balance. The voices you can really trust are the ones who are in the same boat as you. Those at the front-line of Digital Transformation.

KB: I have listened to some of your video interviews dealing with vendors: from Nathan Hayes again, on the The Vendor Community and its inability to demonstrate delivery of real product value in any quantitative way (I’m sure that is true) here; and from Charles Ewen (CIO at the Met Office) here and James Findlay (CIO, HS2) here, on Choosing a Vendor. In your opinion, is vendor sales and marketing a help or a distraction?

RB: There’s lots of technology vendors with excellent marketing and I would argue that it’s not enough any more. The challenge that marketers need to solve is really how to differentiate their products and maintain relevance. On the other-side of the table, CxO’s are bombarded with vendor approaches, often with little context or relevance. In the age of personalisation, ultimately you’ve got to target and market towards an audience of one.

KB: Some Bloor analysts foresee the rise of the “service integrator”, which will catalyse digital transformation by helping enterprises replace their reliance on physical infrastructure with “rented” orchestrated services that allow the enterprise to concentrate on agile business rather than agile technology. The service integrator matches the service level agreements needed to operate the enterprise’s business with service offerings from the various vendors (which may not be as effective in practice as they appear on the web advert – for example, one “resilient” service might include an afternoon a week “planned downtime”; while another might regard any sort of downtime as an issue to resolve, but might it cost a bit more). Do you think that this idea could resonate with the CIOs you talk to?

RB: Absolutely. We’re witnessing a grand coalescence happening within legacy IT architecture. Alongside SIs we’ll continue to see more VC money pouring into innovative vendors that simplify complicated legacy systems. The new guard are coming and their DNA is embedded with agility. See, for example:

KB: OK, but despite our CxO focus here, we are all supposed to be customer focused today. What about the customers? Do an organisation’s customers just transform along with the organisation, or have they transformed already? Does the acceptance of transformation by customers depend on the industry and its maturity?

RB: It was Joe Baguely (VMware vice president and chief technology officer for EMEA ) that said to me, ‘Consumer Behavior dictates Business Technology’ and he’s absolutely correct. I remember the CIO of Santander telling me that they were a bank and not Google; and a couple of weeks ago I had the COO of Atom (bank) telling me that they were not a bank but a technology service. The word “bank” may not mean what we think it means now, in a few years time. We’re seeing similar examples in other industries. “Customercentricity” should be the mantra for all organisations; but with enterprise technology, on the whole, not being in a position to compete with the experience we enjoy every day with consumer apps and the tech we have at home, it will take some time until it gets there. See Dave Cook, CDO at Time Out, here.

KB: That last clip touched on “horses for courses” when implementing security. What about Governance in the mutable enterprise? Do your CIOs accept the idea of “bimodal automated business”, where some things can change fast and others (perhaps subject to external regulation) can’t? How does the mutable enterprise co-exist with other businesses, or government departments, that haven’t undergone digital transformation.

RB: If we think of Bimodal IT as a framework or bridge designed to enable enterprise to move quickly and keep the lights on, then a true “mutable enterprise”, on the other hand, is formed in the company’s cultural DNA. It’s a pure breed, ideally building from a clean sheet of paper. Mutable enterprises are different animals entirely [to existing enterprises] and I would argue that it’s almost impossible from one to migrate to the other. It’s all about the people and the combined mindset. When I walk into a company to conduct an interview, I can sense the DNA in the air, it’s almost visible. Nathan Hayes talks about using automation as an enabler for standards and, presumably, process governance here.

KB: In my mind, this prompts a question: “Do organisations always transform as a whole. Or is there stuff that won’t and can’t transform”?

RB Successful transformation, in my view, boils down to a number of key factors all working symbiotically: company culture, leadership, appetite for risk, agility and business model. Change is hard and whilst you may be able change a couple of these factors (a significant feat on its own), to expect a business to be entirely renewed, well I haven’t seen many examples of that so far. Human beings don’t work that way. Watch, for example, Darrel Stein, on Organisation Culture Change here.

KB: Given all that, how would you assess the health of the mutable enterprise movement? I won’t ask for a hostage to fortune and a definite date for success (or failure), especially as this involves predicting past an inflection-point; but in, say, a decade’s time, would you expect to see the Mutable Enterprise as the norm, or do you see mutable and conventional enterprises coexisting on into the indefinite future?

RB: That’s a tough one! We may not even have smartphones in a decade’s time. What we’re seeing now – and I think it will continue – is a combined evolution of thinking, process and business models. I see some organisations getting better at it than others. It’s Darwinian. When we start to add big data, AI, machine learning, automation, robotics, predictive analytics and time all into the mix the horizon looks too fuzzy to call. A mutable enterprise may purely mean one that is in business. Perhaps by then we’ll need to have reassessed what exactly a job is, and what’s a career, and how people actually produce work together.

KB: Thanks, Robin. I think my takeaway from this is that we are all just at the start of the digital transformation journey; that although we’ll encounter real problems, there are people a bit further along on the journey who can guide us; and that our peer group is likely to be of more practical assistance than vendor marketing.

All video clips courtesy of Insightive (