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Building the engine that drives digital transformation

Increasingly accessible digital tools, including low code and cloud-based networks, are helping tech-forward organizations democratize data capabilities for business success.

Digital transformation has long been a well-established strategic imperative for organizations globally. The effects of covid-19—which have transformed the world into a (perhaps permanently) dispersed collection of individual broadband-connected consumers, partners, and employees—have not disrupted or wholly redefined this trend, instead they have created additional emphasis on digital transformation strategies already well underway.

Building the engine that drives digital transformation

This is the consensus view of an MIT Technology Review Insights survey of 210 members of technology executives, conducted in March 2021. These respondents report that they need—and still often lack— the ability to develop new digital channels and services quickly, and to optimize them in real time.

Underpinning these waves of digital transformation are two fundamental drivers: the ability to serve and understand customers better, and the need to increase employees’ ability to work more effectively toward those goals.

Two-thirds of respondents indicated that more efficient customer experience delivery was the most critical objective. This was followed closely by the use of analytics and insight to improve products and services (60%). Increasing team collaboration and communication, and increasing security of digital assets and intellectual property came in joint third, with around 55% each.

All the digital objectives are integrally linked to improving customer and employee engagement, retention, and activation. Richard Jefts, vice president and general manager of HCL’s Digital Solutions, notes that increasing team collaboration and communication received additional attention over the last year.

“With covid-19, management teams needed to ensure that business could continue remotely, which has meant new levels of adoption of collaboration capabilities and the use of the low code by employees to digitize business processes to bridge the gaps,” says Jefts.

Miao Song, Brussels-based chief information officer of Mars Petcare, notes that digitalization has been steadily redefining her company’s global pet nutrition and veterinary services businesses. “Our online business has seen double-digit growth, and the resulting volume of customer data allows us to forecast demand better,” says Song.

Digital tools also allow more and better market data to be gathered and utilized quickly. Song points out that AI-enabled image recognition tools are being used by Mars’ sales reps to scan retailers’ shelves and generate insight for better inventory management.

As Mars’ reliance on AI and analytics is increasing throughout the organization, it is teaching many employees to use low-code tools to bolster their internal capabilities. Low code is a software development approach that requires little to no coding to build applications and processes, allowing users with no formal knowledge of coding or software development to create applications.

“Everybody in our company needs to become a data analyst—not just IT team members,” says Song, speaking of Mars’ efforts to increase digital literacy in a bid to enhance visibility across the company’s supply chain, refine pricing strategies, and develop new products and services.

Song notes that promoting the use of low-code development tools through hackathons and other activities has been an important part of Mars’ efforts: “we need to break the notion that only IT can access and use our data resources,” she adds.

Customer experience is (still) king

Survey respondents have indicated that they have already seen significantly increased performance in customer experience processes since undertaking digital transformation efforts. Moving into the coming year, customer experience continues to be a priority.

Respondents are seeking to improve digital channels in particular, followed by analytics and to support personalization, and AI or automated customer engagement tools. Other digital competencies are being built to accommodate changes in customer and partner expectations and requirements, streamlining customer experience processes by delivering multi-experience capabilities.

Alan Pritchard, director of ICT Services for Austin Health, a public hospital group based in Melbourne, Australia, explains that his company’s digital transformation process began to accelerate well before covid-19’s impact set in.

“A model of service review in 2019 identified home-based monitoring and home-based care as critical to our future service delivery—so even prior to the pandemic, our health strategy was focused on improving digital channels and increasing our capacity to support people outside of the hospital,” says Pritchard, noting that in order to execute on Austin Health’s outreach strategy, a common customer relationship management (CRM) platform needed to be built.

“While some future service models can be delivered with telehealth initiatives or with device integration, there’s still a lot of work to do looking at how you communicate electronically with people about their health status,” says Pritchard.

The organization’s common CRM platform needed to accommodate numerous autonomous specialty departments, “and each of them wants their own app to communicate electronically with their patients,” observes Pritchard.

Managing numerous separate app development processes is complex, although “there are common patterns in how departments engage with patients in appointment booking, preparation, and follow-up processes”, says Pritchard, “so we need a platform that’s highly reusable, rather than a series of apps built on custom code.”

This, coupled with the need to distribute some control and customization through the multiple departments, led Prichard’s team down a low-code path.

This largely correlates with the experiences of our survey cohort: over 75% of respondents indicate that they have increased their use of digital development platforms (including low code), and over 80% have increased their investment priorities in workflow management tools over the last year.

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This content was produced by Insights, the custom content arm of MIT Technology Review. It was not written by MIT Technology Review’s editorial staff.