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True "digital transformation" positions IT as a business-growth engine

This post also appeared on LinkedIn.

As an F500-company leader and former management consultant, I’ve spent much of my IT professional career adapting enterprise infrastructure to meet “digital transformation” challenges. I’ve come to question the term “digital transformation.” As a term of art, it isn’t particularly specific. It can mean different things to different people: Is digital transformation a change in security architecture? The adoption of SaaS applications? Moving infrastructure to the cloud? Enabling work from anywhere (WFA)? Converting an internally managed WAN to a Software-Defined WAN (SD-WAN)? Does it include customer engagement or user experience?

For me, digital transformation can be any significant change to legacy architecture designed to improve the core competencies of supported business. In practice, “digital transformation” encompasses cloud migration, security transformation, cultural evolution, and  most importantly  IT’s transformation into an engine of business growth.

It’s that last piece — IT’s transformation into a business-growth enablement engine — that represents the ultimate objective of digital transformation. For example, my previous company provided employment services to companies and applicants looking to connect, globally. We were not an IT software or hardware company, yet our top-notch IT team had to make a network run, build email servers, and develop the occasional CRM application. But we found that the attention paid to legacy infrastructure wasn’t the best use of IT resources. We achieved more — much more — when IT focused on how to leverage partners and services to achieve the goals of our company and customers. This became all the more apparent as the company grew both organically and through mergers and acquisitions (M&A).
 

Digital transformation objective #1: Keep your head in the clouds

“Digital transformation” typically involves the cloud. But what is a cloud-first solution? Is it moving assets to the cloud? Is it using the cloud as part of your infrastructure? Is it enabling working from anywhere?

It’s all of those things, and more. The cloud element of digital transformation strategy is about decentralizing infrastructure and operations so that an enterprise can quickly adapt to take advantage of new technology to better realize goals.

Cloud services can supplant the need for costly custom development, but only with perspective:Every discipline of IT should be challenged to answer the question, “Why are we building this service instead of buying and delivering it to the business instead?” Digital transformation should enable core competencies. But building and managing services limits core competencies by contributing to technology debt that limits future growth potential.  
 

Digital transformation objective #2: Secure the work without slowing performance

Security concerns can complicate cloud adoption. Security teams must protect legacy networks in an environment of ongoing attacks, new exploits, data-exfiltration threats, evolving business models, systems integration (often from M&A activity). The apparent control that legacy security models provide is attractive: Forcing data to flow through managed, centralized gates seems to provide oversight of access and traffic. 

Except that control is illusory, not to mention a performance bottleneck. The majority of employee work is now performed outside the purview of perimeter-based security visibility. The enterprise world has embraced a decentralized, cloud-first model of work, whether IT teams welcome it or not. When those IT teams try to secure cloud-first work with legacy infrastructure, performance falters, and users look to alternatives. Some bypass security for the sake of faster connectivity. Others create so-called “shadow-IT” initiatives. 

This centralized security model adds little value to an enterprise. For example, IT teams need visibility into data traffic flows, application use, even data-center access. Legacy network infrastructure can slow data traffic by routing it to a faraway destination, but it can’t provide any of that needed visibility. Legacy stacks of heterogeneous, point-product networking and security equipment provides no consolidated way of determining this information quickly. (Try pulling a specific IP address and port from firewall access lists that are several years old.) 

So how do you begin “transforming” your network? Start with security. Move it to the cloud. Whether you recognize it or not, legacy security is holding you back. When you decouple security from centralized, hub-and-spoke network architectures, it opens the entire network to change. Now you can build decentralized infrastructure that securely employs the internet as its delivery device.

The Zero Trust Network Access (ZTNA) architecture is built upon fundamentals of zero trust, specifically, a default-deny security posture that minimizes trust issuance, automatically rejecting system access to unknown sources, both inside and outside the network. This architecture is typically distributed via a cloud service. To gain access to a ZTNA environment, users must meet specific requirements. ZTNA offers true control: organizations can dictate, customize, and adjust access requirements based on specific needs and risk level. These requirements can be set at user, device, location, and application levels.

Shifting to cloud-based security opens the enterprise system extensibility floodgates: Your network can now use cloud-based Wi-Fi controllers, phone systems, video-conferencing systems, collaboration platforms like Microsoft Teams, industry-specific SaaS, etc. The “black-box” legacy network mindset holds back progress: Legacy security costs too much, is difficult to administer, provides little in the way of flexibility, and worst of all, isn’t even that secure. Digital transformation to the cloud means that IT becomes the enterprise enabler of change, and a strategic partner in business process improvement. 
 

Digital transformation objective #3: Set the transformation stage within corporate culture

Digital transformation requires both a corporate mandate and a cultural shift. Change can be hard: Many IT teams have a deeply ingrained attachment to centralized security infrastructure models. It’s what they know. It’s what they’re certified on. Many view cloud-first architectures with understandable apprehension. Meanwhile, CxOs listen to them, and don’t always have the technical perspective to choose one security paradigm over another. 

Successful enterprise digital transformation requires patient teaching and committed assurance:

  • Educate leadership. CxOs need to understand what “cloud-first” means from a business perspective, not a technical one. When it comes to company leadership, position cloud-first as the means to achieve company goals and solve company issues. Case in point, the COVID-19 crisis. Legacy networks were for the most part unequipped to rapidly handle the needed changes to workforce models. Companies with flexible, cloud-first networks shifted quickly and with little disruption to productivity and budget.
  • Assure IT. IT teams are on the hook for making company technology work. And you’re asking them to manage during a period of (what seems to them dramatic) change. They prefer the known to the unknown. To make digital transformation work, you’re going to have to convince them to move beyond their comfort zone.

I worked for a company that pushed through a consolidation of infrastructure. The biggest roadblock was the culture within IT. IT stakeholders were used to supporting point products that they had spent their entire career managing. They had a very confined view of what was possible. IT leaders needed to understand that their new role was helping the company consume services and deliver capabilities to their business, as opposed to building and managing them at a much lower infrastructure level. These leaders also needed to ensure that team members understood their role in the new “consuming services” model (vs. their role when building services). 
 

When IT becomes the business engine

Once your IT team and executive teams are on board with moving away from legacy architectures, you can start building the cloud-first enterprise. You can start making IT a way of driving new enterprise objectives. 

It’s a myth that you must sacrifice security for user experience. Once educated teams embrace the cloud, your teams can help generate revenue, protect data, reduce costs, or avoid unnecessary spend. Beyond that, now you can reassess all the delayed projects that have piled up on the service managers because they cost too much, couldn’t be done securely, or required unavailable resources. Instead of the department that says “no,” you can be the department that says “yes.”

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