Project managers: The key to unlocking digitalisation

According to the author of ‘The Digital Transformation Playbook’, David Rogers, there has been a real divide between organisations who were already on the path to digital transformation, and those who have been slow to get moving. It’s become apparent those still sat on the side-lines, thinking about the right strategic approach, have fallen behind and are now scrambling to keep up.

This is surprising when you consider the near universal consensus over the importance of digital transformation. According to HCL’s recent report on digital acceleration, 91% of companies feel that digital transformation is a priority, and 89% plan to invest more in at least one next-gen technology. Yet surprisingly few digital transformation initiatives succeed. Embracing new technologies alone isn’t enough. While 35% of the respondents reported their digital transformation plans were being blocked by a lack of internal capabilities, 31% believe cultural mindset was an even bigger barrier.

Transformation must be product-centric, not project-centric

Many organisations consider digital transformation initiatives as projects with a fixed start and end date — a one-and-done initiative. However, in practice it all boils down to having the right mindset. In the case of digitalisation, continuous improvement is needed to truly unlock success. 

Step one towards ensuring a successful digital transformation is never assuming the work is done. Just like products, digital transformation initiatives must be agile, iterative, and constantly evolving. This could be changing customer needs, market trends, new technologies, and even sudden business mandates. This is why businesses must look at digital transformation through the lens of product management.

Whether or not a business’ product management strategy can support digital transformation successfully hinges on a few key factors. Continuous experimentation is vital: there is huge reliance on a culture of failing fast and upskilling to keep an organisation relevant. Additionally, traditional data collection and analytics is simply not enough. Teams must be able to draw actionable insights from data and use analytical models to understand consumer behavior and drive future decision making. Thinking about digital transformation in the same way can help businesses overcome many of the barriers they face on the digital transformation drive. 

Using product managers as a catalyst

Change is hard, and to be effective, an organisation needs the right talent to act as change agents. This is where product managers can shine. Product managers are uniquely skilled in prioritising — picking the right problems to solve by understanding the changes in market trends and consumer demands. They can examine the data collected and use their vast consumer expertise to pinpoint opportunities, prioritise them, and chart a course. Often, this is the missing piece of the puzzle in business’ digital transformation: 70% of the organisations we surveyed had a strategy in place, but only 10% had a deployment plan.

Businesses can also tap into the fact that product managers care about how their products are perceived. They can use this experience to reduce friction in interactions across multiple teams and collaborate to work towards common outcomes in a digital transformation initiative.

However, having the right people is just one part of the equation. Empowering them to own their products as well as their outcomes and driving change at an executive level is equally important. Unfortunately, we still frequently see product managers only handling operational aspects while senior leadership dictate strategy. In such cases, even the best product managers end up as glorified project managers responsible for the backlog, but with little authority to bring about organisation-wide change, innovate, or add value.

Treat your digital transformation initiative as a product, bring in empowered, competent product managers to drive it, and watch the magic happen. 

Data makes a world of difference

A HCL Tech StraightTalk study found almost 90% of organisational leaders don’t have any visibility into existing business processes. A fragmented or non-existent data strategy makes it difficult to facilitate effective decision-making, which makes it impossible to understand how internal stakeholders are faring with digital initiatives. 

Product management is all about making data-driven decisions. It involves experimenting with product data and direct feedback from the end-user. Product managers know what their customers want and can gauge whether the solution is serving its purpose. Effective product analytics can drive development cycles and validate whether the engineers are correctly prioritising their efforts.

Leveraging data in a similar fashion to further a digital transformation initiative can play a big part in seeing it to fruition. 

Getting started with a product management approach

According to Gartner, digital transformation can be anything from IT modernisation to the invention of new business models. Incorporating these kinds of changes requires having product managers at the helm, in charge of your digital assets. Product professionals are better suited to understand that digital transformation is a continuous, long-term process, lasting longer than a mere few weeks or months.

Organisations must also embrace a culture of experimentation. That involves normalising failure and encouraging employees to learn from their failures to innovate faster and more effectively. Lastly, organisations must prioritise creating and deploying a robust strategy to facilitate data-driven decisions before initiating any digital transformation. They should encourage two-way communication so all stakeholders can provide feedback, which product managers can use to evolve strategy. 

Empowering the right people to drive change

Product managers are data-driven, cross-functional, customer-centric and open to learning constantly. They can make your people care for digital transformation initiatives by educating the entire business on the value of continuous engagement and using data to drive their points home. It is vital that organisations empower these product professionals to bring about actual change, or they risk falling even further behind the longer they stay sitting on the digital side-lines.

Ananth Subramanya

Senior Vice President, Digital Business, at HCL Tech

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