dinosaur skeleton on  display at Chicago's field museum
PHOTO: Chris Nguyen

Reaching an enlightened state of digital transformation is a different journey — often with a different destination — for every company.  The phrase “digital transformation” itself is up for interpretation. Some define it as simply moving to SaaS apps or cloud infrastructures. The purer definition, however, is more about reimagining business processes to drive greater business success in the fast-paced digital age.

Working in the software space, I have a front row seat to many companies’ varying quests towards digital maturity. We tend to expect our largest financial institutions, insurance companies, and to some degree, healthcare companies, to be digitally transformed and cloud-ready.  This is due in part to the nature of their businesses — sensitive consumer information and massive volumes of data — as well as to the fierceness of the competition. If they don’t evolve quickly, someone else will steal precious market share.  So while they’re not always striving to be innovative, they’re highly conscious of remaining competitive.

The over 30 million small businesses in the US, however, are always weighing the cost of digital transformation against the cost of maintaining business continuity and being happy (and profitable) with the status quo. Small businesses account for 99.9% of our economic engine and jobs, and they all fall in different places along the spectrum of digital maturity. 

One thing most of them have in common? They were not ready for 2020.

Here are three big-picture lessons companies across the board learned during the digital transformation crash course we all got this year.

1. Being Agile Is No Longer a Nice-to-Have

Being agile is arguably more about culture than adopting specific processes. Agile companies are trained to fail fast, iterate and keep moving forward. This requires complete transparency and open communication across teams. Getting negative results is critical to learning and growing.

Because agile companies are constantly in experimentation mode — where friction is a part of growth, rather than something to avoid — their teams know how to adapt quickly when unideal circumstances present themselves, no matter their origin.

Companies that hadn’t established agile cultures prior to COVID-19 lockdowns had difficulty adapting to 2020. Growth and velocity were likely secondary to simply keeping up.

Related Article: The 3 Fundamental Pillars of Organizational Agility

2. Keeping Critical Infrastructure On-Premises Causes More Problems Than it Solves

We’ve all heard stories of the critical server under someone’s desk that’s responsible for a core business function. For companies that still operate this way — due to slowness to adapt or fear that cloud servers aren’t secure enough — 2020 was extremely stressful when they learned they weren’t allowed in the office the next morning.

There are many areas that can be overlooked when you haven’t embraced the cloud. For instance, do you use on-premises source control on servers with out-of-date hardware? Is your CRM a modern SaaS tool like Salesforce or is it a legacy client-server product? Are there third-party connectors or adapters you have built internally over the years that aren’t cloud-ready’?  For example, a C++ plug-in that works perfect on your LAN but does not have a Web API for the same functions over HTTP?

Every one of us can relate to this because it wasn’t too long ago that most organizations were still vulnerable to these issues — even at the largest enterprises. The takeaway is that on-prem and legacy issues can have a significant adverse effect when unforeseen emergencies happen in the physical environment. 

Related Article: The Role of Distributed Cloud Computing in the Enterprise

3. You Must Democratize Data and Communication Company-Wide

While distributed teams aren’t a new concept for most of us, a 100% remote workforce is.

SaaS communication and collaboration tools had already become a part of some companies’ everyday processes over the past few years, but the majority of businesses were still slow to adopt. Many remained dependent on drive-by hallway conversations between team members or executives to get things done. To these companies, casual kitchen conversations that led to major business breakthroughs were the norm and instilled in their culture. 

Now, with still mostly remote workforces, driving business performance will depend on using the digital platforms that focus on team and company alignment on goals, enable decision-making with analytics, hold teams and individuals accountable, and keep everyone in the know.

The takeaway? Establish a data culture. Use data to drive decision making and understand the data behind your key metrics.

Doing this will increase your team’s performance by letting you prioritize the initiatives that help you meet larger organizational goals.

If I were to sum all of this up into a single thought, it would be: You must keep up with the rapid pace of technological change or you will not survive. What was once optional, is now critical.