The Quest for the Digital Frontier

min read

Key Takeaways

  • Evolving technology enables us to move from digital transactions to digital relationships, shaking the foundations of all businesses and forcing them to preemptively disrupt from within or risk being unable to respond to external disruptions.
  • The new IT function serves as an innovation engine — strategic, agile, hyperaware, predictive, and bold — with a focus primarily on orchestrating complex digital ecosystems to deliver premium experiences to customers.
  • Digital requires new thinking, and digital leadership must establish the right combination of vision, governance, people, behaviors, processes, culture, operational models, and technology to succeed.

William Confalonieri, Chief Digital Officer and Vice-President, Deakin University

We live in an age of pervasive computing. New technologies have a growing ripple effect across work, study, social, and private activities. Now a core part of our lives, technology blurs previously well-defined borders between different aspects of our days and shifts power from organizations to individuals. At a business level, these same innovations present tremendous risks and substantial opportunities. Not coincidentally, both effects strongly correlate. New customer expectations force the reconfiguration of business processes and delivery models. This issue is perfectly expressed by that famous Jack Welch quote, "If the rate of change inside an institution is less than the rate of change outside, the end is in sight."

Technology has evolved to a point where it enables us to move from digital transactions to digital relationships. By deriving deep insights into personal preferences from online interactions, paradoxically we can know and treat our customers, on a massive scale, as unique individuals again. This new level of potential digital intimacy represents an immense competitive advantage waiting to be realized. Digital innovations also impact core business processes, workforce enablement, delivery models, customer experiences, and, most importantly, established business models. These forces are shaking the foundations of all businesses today, and organizations are forced to preemptively disrupt from within or risk being unprepared for and unable to respond to external disruptions.

This current social and economic shift is known as digital disruption. However, we are experiencing just the initial ripple of a sequence of waves that will continue to form and accelerate. As technology changes are absorbed, matured, and recombined, new disruption waves develop. Organizations will face change at a pace we have never seen before. Regrettably, our ways of informing strategy development will find severe limitations, since shaping strategy based on what we know about the past assumes a linear future — and that line will be broken.

Open Boundaries for IT

At a time when pervasive computing requires reinvention of organizational domains and functions, the IT function becomes an intrinsic part of the DNA of digital business strategies. Thinking of IT as just a utility is incorrect and could be dangerously misleading. IT as a discipline has the enormous potential of becoming the transformational force guiding organizations through unfamiliar digital landscapes.

IT no longer involves only information (with consequences for the CIO title); it also involves the "third platform" as IDC calls it — cloud, mobile, social, and big data. Our domain includes virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and the Internet of Things as well. It extends to intimate digital relationships and to productive collaboration. It encompasses the augmented environment responding uniquely to us and protecting us. It includes highly responsive event-oriented architectures. It supports prompting emotions and winning minds and hearts of audiences through delightful digital experiences.

The main challenges include:

  • Architecting digital blueprints
  • Building big data backbones
  • Establishing agile service architectures
  • Orchestrating powerful, complex, but inspiring digital ecosystems

The primary goal is delivering premium experiences and creating competitive advantage. The business calls on the new IT function to be its innovation engine — strategic, agile, hyperaware, predictive, and bold — because the new IT function enables the global digital transformation.

The New CIO Role

In line with the change in landscape, expectations of the person charged with leading the enterprise technology function are also rapidly changing. Organizations continue to depend on secure, reliable, efficient, and stable platforms, but the functional IT head's traditional approach will not meet the new multidimensional digital challenge. The market now demands from CIOs deep capability and contribution as digital leaders.

Preserving a "service provider" mentality will put many CIOs in a fragile position. Transformational leadership is needed now. CIOs must help businesses quickly adapt to this new, still forming digital environment and succeed in the face of rapid, ubiquitous technological change. The market expects a new breed of digital leader who focuses on enterprise strategy and not solely on technology. Rather than only implementing foundational enterprise platforms, the CIO must focus primarily on orchestrating complex digital ecosystems to deliver premium experiences to customers. New business value will be created through inspiring digital experiences, and it is therefore essential that digital leaders build a culture of sustainable enterprise change, embrace innovation, and take an outside-in perspective.

For the technology leader this calls for courage and deep conviction. For many it will mean professional reinvention, given the urgent need to move well beyond "back of house" IT operations, infrastructure, and platforms. The CIO must help the business reinvent itself from the front-end to serve the "connected" generation of customers, which requires being a decisive innovator with a clear vision of how technology will transform businesses and the organizational muscle to make it happen.

Digital Maturity

Some recent studies (such as the Altimeter Survey) show that the typical digital transformational program only entails the implementation of an ambitious technology investment plan. Although a step in the right direction, it certainly won't be enough if applied in isolation. Digital transformation must be understood as the journey to acquiring digital maturity and not just a technology modernization initiative.

The path to digital maturity consists of two interweaving developments: The first concerns achieving digital performance, while the second involves the transformation of the organization's DNA, from industrial to digital. Both characteristics, performance and essence, are necessary for a sustainable digital future.

Digital performance is the output of our digital efforts. This part can be seen and experienced. New technologies and processes, combined in smarter ways, can significantly change stakeholders' experiences. The goal is to positively change the way our customers operate and to tailor their experiences to their needs to make them more enjoyable. Relatively easy, this part requires creative ideas, funding, and pockets of talent.

For established organizations with "industrial DNA," reimagining engagement processes is usually problematic, and making them a reality proves even more difficult. The additional challenge is sustaining the new approach once implemented. Without digital DNA, the digital platforms delivered through the digital performance efforts will become heavy to sustain, and the organization will become paralysed by a myriad of uncontrollable platforms and channels.

In the new world, we need to move faster, and speed generally causes fractures in the organizational fabric if the organization has not aerodynamically prepared itself. At high speed, even small fractures become dangerous. This makes the second development the most important, as this process gives the organization the aerodynamics required for the digital race. Acquiring digital DNA is the most difficult part of the transformation because it involves people and organizational arrangements, and the way we perceive, think, understand, and do things.

Digital excellence demands respect for three essential principles:

  • Premium experience must be delivered across all digital customer touch points.
  • Information must be consistent and available where and when needed.
  • Each system and process must be considered as a gear of a much more complex machine.

The experience we deliver defines us. Information enables that experience, and systems and processes facilitate it.

The typical organizational approach, however, focuses on partial experiences and parts of the information, and on those things that maximize functional performance but not necessarily organizational performance. Organizations usually build systems in functional towers, based on what process they need to automate and what function they need to do for their business. Governance arrangements, key performance indicators, bonuses, recognitions, auditing processes, and many organizational controls and incentives center on vertical structures. They tend to prioritise functional delivery, generally not observing the fragmentation of the organizational "info-structure" or effects on the smoothness of the digital touch-point transitions.

Digital requires new thinking, and new thinking usually doesn't come naturally. Our learning and instincts might deceive us, as they have operated for so long under a different paradigm. Often organizations assemble information and digital content around the departments that manage them. This creates a siloed information architecture that rarely reflects the way customers think.

We need to force ourselves to think in a different way, because digital is unlike anything we have encountered before. Digital DNA is about leadership and thus an organizational problem. It requires shifting the focus from internal structures to stakeholders.

The Digital Frontier

As a consequence of the appointment of Professor Jane den Hollander as vice-chancellor and her vision of how technology will change the business of higher education, I joined Deakin University in January 2012 as the university's first CIO. During my first months in the role I participated in the creation of the new strategic plan "LIVE the Future, Agenda 2020," with the motto "Driving the Digital Frontier."

Deakin has embraced digital as a philosophy, understanding the challenges and opportunities presented by the new digital landscape. The rationale is two-fold, with a defensive and a repositioning strategy. If we want to mitigate the risk of disruption, we must pioneer innovation in the digital dimension, with an absolute focus on the student experience. On the other hand, digital offers the best opportunity we have to differentiate ourselves — and perhaps much more. New generations will certainly respond to the organizations responding to the big trends.

The vice-chancellor shaped the CIO role to respond to the challenging digital landscape and to explore the new, still forming, boundaries of information technology. The new position properly balanced enterprise strategy with technology, without the traditionally heavy operational bias. I was also invited to attend all the Senior Executive Board meetings of the university.

One year later, in January 2013, I was promoted to vice-president and gained a permanent seat at the senior executive level. In that same event I became the first chief digital officer in Australia; today I still am the only CDO in the Australian university sector.

In a relatively short period of time, Deakin received accolades at the national and global levels for its performance in the digital and technology space, including:

Deakin is the first university in the world to apply cognitive computing, through IBM's Watson, to serve and advise students: Watson@Deakin [] (Student's Video). We also have ambitious plans in augmented reality, virtual reality, the Internet of Things, and several other bleeding edge dimensions.

Naturally, such an adventurous journey encounters difficulties and obstacles. When those things occur, the necessary response is to embrace the opportunity to learn, then correct the direction and from there continue evolving.

CDO @ Deakin

My current CDO role, which could be understood as an extended CIO role, has a triple relationship with the organization:

  1. Almost all functions in higher education are enabled by IT systems, whether teaching and learning, research experiments, student support, facilities management, commercial operations, or general administration.
  2. IT permanently reshapes the nature of teaching, learning, and research. In the context of digital disruption, IT becomes one of the main sources of competitive advantage: creation, access, collaboration, flexibility, personalisation, differentiation, and global reach.
  3. Finally, to sustain a digital performance effort, the organization must acquire digital DNA, and my role has a central function in accompanying and guiding the transformation process.

Digital leadership does not just deal with technology; it involves establishing the right combination of vision, governance, people, behaviors, processes, culture, operational models, and technology. Therefore the foundational elements must use the following themes:

  • Inspiring values, vision, and strategy
  • Hiring, developing, and retaining smart, adaptable, and skilled people
  • Fostering a culture of communication, consultation, and commitment
  • Nurturing creativity through experimentation, imagining, and dreaming
  • Maintaining transparency and shared governance
  • Implementing efficient, innovative, and elegant technology ecosystems

I represent the CDO role, but my team executes it. They are my first priority. Giving them the skills, capabilities, motivation, and proper organizational arrangements they need underlies anything we achieve. After that, my most important function is to partner with all the areas, administrative and academic, in creating the university's future.

After joining Deakin University, one of my most important deliverables was the Deakin eStrategy 2013–2015, which provided a clear vision for our digital efforts during the following three years. Dozens of projects have been delivered to respond to this strategy, which has helped the university reposition itself in the digital space. This video interview discusses some conclusions to this process.

Now, with a much more mature understanding of the challenges, risks, and opportunities of the digital dimension, a new strategic effort is being developed. Vision+, the Deakin Digital Strategy 2016–2018, will be delivered later this year. This new strategy is being built on six pillars:

image 1 Excel by being the best at what we do to ensure our technologies and processes just hum.

image 2 Protect Deakin by securing the organization and its electronic assets from cyber-attacks and cyber-failures.

image 3 Enable the university by providing tools and services that support our business needs.

image 4 Advance the university by delivering solutions that improve our business performance through automation, change, and innovation.

image 5 Differentiate Deakin by creating opportunities to stand out from the competition.

image 6 Evolve Deakin by enhancing our organizational capabilities and practices to thrive in the digital world.

The opportunities that the future insinuates for the higher education industry are exciting and provocative. At Deakin University, we will be ready for them.