With all the pressures on chief technology officers, the question comes up about how IT and teams can underpin business transformation and keep the lights on with managing the existing systems used to run the company.

John Appleby, Chief Executive Officer

November 22, 2022

4 Min Read
Binary numbers design, algorithm digital transformation
Pablo Lagarto via Alamy Stock

Digital transformation? Who has time for that? It was a genuine exclamation of frustration I witnessed when I was with the CTO of a well-known cabinet maker. It’s not the first time I’ve been faced with a pessimistic view. Businesses are struggling to prioritize and invest in the technology they need to deliver significant change to their operations.

All of them have a clear vision of where they want to be. They know how they will attract customers by delivering a great product or service and a customer experience people will pay for.

However, leaders are managing a very complex set of external parameters: raw product delays and supply chain inefficiency, fluctuating currencies, skills shortages, rocketing energy prices, inflation -- the list goes on. Every penny must be used wisely, and they can’t let change affect the existing status quo. There’s too much risk to the existing business, let alone the business it wants to become.

That’s the dilemma CTOs face every day: How can their skilled team overcome competing priorities of business-as-usual demands and the innovation needed for transformation?

I empathize with the annoyance. After all, the CTOs I work with are all evangelists for using technology to become more agile and compete on different terms. They know better than anyone the importance of becoming a digital-first brand.

However, on average, IT teams managing an SAP environment are spending 70% of their time managing the existing architecture and 30% upgrading it so it remains fully supported and secure, and that it doesn’t fall over.

You are effectively being asked to transform a business with one arm tied behind your back.

What Gives?

Given the scale of the businesses we’re talking about, reducing the 70% figure (that’s the investment needed to just feed and water the applications) by 3-5% annually would make a massive difference to the IT function. Multiplied over 10 years, it would dramatically alter the environment for driving change across the business. It’s a valid justification for starting a discussion on automation.

But we are, of course, looking at sizeable environments that often stretch globally. That’s why it’s prudent to break it down. Ask each team to identify the daily manual tasks that are time consuming and could be automated. Which tasks could they “hand over” if a safety net of alerts was in place? Then, ask which tasks, when automated, would make the biggest difference to how we run things today and what we could deliver back to the business tomorrow?

For some organizations, reallocating 2-3% of their resource in this way would save millions over the course of a year. Skilled people would be able to turn their attention to the strategy. That can be highly energizing and motivating for individuals, and as such I’ve seen some companies reverse trends on employee retention this way.

Instead of doing repetitive tasks all the time, people can use the time that’s freed up by automation to explore, design and introduce the agile and innovative applications the business demands.

Stay Realistic

It’s important to be realistic about what you can achieve when you start out on this journey. I would encourage CTOs to avoid setting a 2-3% target for the sake of having a target, or because that’s what you think a contract with a partner should say. Be strategic. Find the areas ripe for automation and focus on them.

I’ve seen some organizations map how difficult it is to automate a task against the impact it will have to the team, service delivery and the bottom line. But you should also add some realism. Is it better to have some quick wins so you get buy-in from the team before becoming more ambitious? Should the tasks that people detest doing be the focus, so you can move the dial on employee engagement and motivate people to be more ambitious next time? Even if it means going through a bit of disruption next time, if they have experienced the benefits for themselves, they will be more willing to try addressing trickier areas of the operational environment.

In my experience, this works out as the best way to influence both ends of the organization. The CTO can act as a case study and use the learned experience to evangelize the benefits of automation to their peers. What’s more, they can transfer the “saved” IT resource to help other business functions achieve their automation goals.

In some companies, they’ve been able to use this small change to gradually shift the culture of the organization to one that values hyper-automation, whereby people in other business functions proactively scrutinize all processes from financial operations to sales and look for the small gains that will add up to transformation.

This is when automation truly starts to snowball, and the ethos of hyper-automation becomes more widely embedded. Admittedly, it does take time, courage, and patience. But if there’s one thing I know from working with international brands, it’s this: Once you make the move you’ll never look back.

About the Author(s)

John Appleby

Chief Executive Officer, Avantra

John Appleby leads Avantra as the CEO. Before Avantra John served as the Global Head of DDM/HANA Center of Excellence at SAP and as the Global Head of SAP HANA solutions at Bluefin Solutions, subsequently acquired by Mindtree. John is a recognized thought leader in the SAP market and was part of SAP’s Mentors Group. John holds an MA in computer science from the University of Cambridge.

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