Digital Transformation From Someone Who’s Lived It

I’ve had plenty of IT leadership roles — at AIG, Earthlink, American Cancer Society and now at Rackspace. While the organizations have changed, my goal has always been to deliver: systems, applications and solutions that lead to better growth, higher customer retention and improved cost efficiency.

Digital transformation is a buzz phrase du jour right now, often mentioned as a solution to help businesses deliver top experiences for their customers. It’s more than just jargon, though; it’s a fundamental mindset I’ve embraced at every stop along my career. Getting your customers what they need, when they need it and on their terms are critical components of success — but it all has to start with defining a digital transformation strategy.

What digital transformation is — and what it’s not

Digital transformation doesn’t mean digitizing existing processes, but rather fundamentally re-inventing the way your organization delivers value to your customers by leveraging emerging technologies, such as the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence or machine learning. It extends beyond simply applying these technologies, moving into how you’ll be delivering those services.

Here’s an example: at the American Cancer Society, we developed a mobile app that allowed volunteers to securely accept donors’ checks and credit cards after listening to our people say, “Boy, wouldn’t it be great if we reduced our dependency on checks?” Nobody asked us to build the mobile app, but we saw how it would be beneficial for our volunteers and customers, so we developed a solution for them.

Digital transformation also offers the opportunity to capture more data, which, if analyzed properly, can offer additional insights into how your business can be more effective. The real power of digital transformation lies in re-thinking from the ground up, using a new set of tools. Think about each thing you can be doing better. It sounds simple, but doing so requires a cultural shift, and that can be difficult. But in order to be successful, companies must reframe the way they approach challenges.

Initial considerations

In a recent survey of IT decision-makers across industries, almost two thirds responded that they’re either in the planning phase or early launch of a digital transformation. This is a critical time; when you’re getting started, you have to know where you are. Understand your current state by taking the time to do a thorough assessment; think about your use cases, to map some of your value chain to more modern digital capabilities, whether it’s operational excellence, delivering customer value or IT service delivery. Map this value chain against a specific contingency, such as return on investment or customer impact.

“Continual improvement” was the hot phrase of the past decade. Digital transformation is the latest version of that idea. The success of both concepts relies on a company culture that embraces continual change and isn’t afraid to re-imagine how things work and how best to deliver customer value. Successful companies are always looking inward to see where they can get better.

Buy-in from the top

One key challenge when contemplating digital transformation is educating the company from the C-suite on down. What are you trying to accomplish, and more importantly, why are you trying to achieve it? How will you measure success? Setting rules of engagement and getting buy in from the top is crucial. A digital transformation effort without clear leadership and visible commitment at the top will likely be dead on arrival.

Once you have C-suite level support, the “how” begins to kick in. Look at what your organization delivers and the promise you’ve made to your customers. How does that experience look today? What should it look like? What could it look like? I’ve found myself chatting with other C-suite executives about moving away from a project mindset and towards a solutions and capabilities mindset. We need to think about things in terms of experiences with customer journeys.  It’s important to gather data points from ALL areas of your organization… especially your customer-facing colleagues on the front line. Their experiences can often be a gold mine of information from which you can draw powerful insights and opportunities.

The power of quick wins

Does the potential depth and breadth of digital transformation make it feel overwhelming? Here’s how to quell those fears: Think big, but start small and scale fast. A series of quick wins right out of the gate can go a long way toward building confidence and generating momentum. Encourage “entrepreneurial” thinking across your organization and give your team the air cover they need to embrace new thinking. This translates to knocking down bureaucratic “walls,” encouraging experimentation, and giving your team permission to fail.

If you’re a company that uses a paper-based reservation system, for example, move to a digital check-in system. If you have a fleet of trucks, instead of a paper-based log, hand out mobile devices for drivers and suppliers. As I mention above, make sure you’re starting with the business and/or customer outcome in mind and examining the process as it *should* be. Also consider how leveraging newer technologies will benefit you in ways your old ecosystem never could (e.g. Combination of mobile + AI = powerful customer service opportunities). Remember: digitizing a bad process or customer interaction just exacerbates your challenges.

Accept mistakes and move on

Lastly, accept that you will have misfires. Be transparent and own them. During my time at American Cancer Society, we moved to Office 365. People were using email as a file retention system, which is not a good place to be. We were teaching a large, distributed team to work in a different way, including the use of shared workspaces, enhanced mobile capabilities and access to richer data sources.

While we initially saw improvements, there were a few bumps along the way — including some self-inflicted wounds from my organization. When something went wrong, though, it wasn’t a mysterious message from the IT department coming in. It was a communication from me not only owning the issues, but also committing to fixing them while learning from them. Developing that trustworthiness and genuine communication with your team is a critical quick win, as well. Don’t be the squirrel chasing the shiny toy — look at a specific use case and figure out what you can be doing better.

Digital transformation will differ for each organization, but you must connect IT to business outcomes and the end customer. Luckily, you don’t have to take the journey on your own. Find a partner with an unrivaled portfolio, agile delivery, unique alignment, unbiased expertise and the Fanatical Experience to guide and boost your digital transformation.

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As chief customer officer, Jay Ferro leads global account management and service delivery for Rackspace. He brings 25 years of experience as a CIO, CTO and customer fanatic. He has a unique understanding of Rackspace customers’ needs and challenges — because he has been a Rackspace customer himself at two of his previous companies. Today, his primary focus is on helping Rackspace customers succeed and achieve their strategic and financial goals while navigating the complex road to digital transformation. Jay was most recently chief information and technology officer of TransPerfect Translations, where he led both IT and product development for the world’s largest privately held language services provider. He earlier served as CITO of ExamWorks, a leading global provider of independent medical examinations, peer reviews and medical record retrieval. Jay also served as chief information and product officer at Earthlink (now Windstream) which helped thousands of customers securely establish critical connections in the cloud. In a role that combined his technology expertise and his passion to serve others through a cause that is deeply personal, Jay previously served as global CIO for the American Cancer Society, where he led the organization’s historic digital transformation. Jay is a globally recognized leader in IT, having earned multiple CIO 100, CIO Regional Champion, and Georgia CIO of the Year accolades. He has also been honored with Transformational CIO Leadership and Business Transformation 100 awards. Jay is an active volunteer and contributor to charitable organizations. In honor of his late wife, he founded the nonprofit Priscilla’s Promise, to promote education and research about cervical cancer. He has been elected to multiple boards, including those of TechBridge, PowerMyLearning, and the American Cancer Society. Jay earned a B.A. in political science and an MBA, both from The University of Georgia. He lives in Atlanta with his three sons.


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