Articles 11 min read

A recipe for digital transformation with Deepthi Rajan

We conducted a Q&A interview with Deepthi, Head of Technology Upskilling and Communication (Corporate and Investment Banking Technology) at Société Générale, around digital transformation, automation, and the potential future for technology.

Could you introduce yourself and what you do?

My name is Deepthi Rajan. I have over a decade of experience in the technology and financial services space. I’m the Head of Technology Upskilling at Société Générale, an inspiring role I took up early this year.

At Société Générale, I’m scripting a massive enterprise-wide transformation effort, that of building skills and expertise at scale, upskilling over 3000 associates across business units.  It’s an exciting journey, as I explore ways to build an adaptive, future-ready workforce, equipped to work with the latest digital technologies and methodologies.

Prior to Société Générale, I headed the Market Research Group at Royal Bank of Scotland, where I was instrumental in advocating and thereby, bringing attention to digital transformation in a traditionally-run function such as Supply Chain Services.

I started my financial services’ journey with one of India’s largest banks as an IT Innovation Strategist. I conceptualized use cases and their proof of concepts, all using emerging technologies, to solve business problems. And I experienced first-hand, the power of digital transformation through a potent combination, that of technology, creativity and collaboration.

In the last 5 years, I have become a serial career shape-shifter, embracing new challenges by taking up different roles. The persistent thread running through all my experiences, though, has been a major focus on digital transformation.

Digital Transformation is a phrase on everyone’s lips, but what would you say digital transformation actually entails?

For me, Digital Transformation equals Desired Behavioural Change.

Digital Transformation, put simply, is a series of strategies, tactics and digital technologies, designed to achieve desirable behavioural modification. Behavioural modification could be that of customers, employees, partners and stakeholders. The end objective of achieving behavioural change could range from improved business outcomes, better customer experiences, efficient processes to radical new products and services. It could even give rise to new business and industry models.

People can conflate digital transformation and digitisation, what’s the difference?

Digitisation is converting something from analogue to digital state. So, what does it mean?

Let’s take a traditionally paper-intensive process such as a mortgage. From origination to the approval of a mortgage, a lot of paper would exchange hands, from customers to banks and within the banks, among their many functions such as marketing, finance, risk, customer support and more. Digitising the above process would mean that instead of submitting forms and other documents in paper format, customers could upload their documents on a bank’s portal. Transforming the process from paper-based to digital is an example of digitisation.

Downsides of digitisation are that besides its limited scope, it often retains the problems inherent with the processes being digitized – even in their digital avatars. A simple instance in the above example would be requiring customers to submit redundant information because the digital form is an exact imitation of its analogue paper cousin!

Digital Transformation, in contrast, is about reimagining the process in its entirety, through the lens of customer experience, operational efficiency and product leadership. For instance, digitally transforming the mortgage process would render the process seamless, ensuring customers face the least friction when interacting with the digital interfaces. It could change the process entirely, from authenticating customers based on unique identifiers, digitally uploading documents, assessing creditworthiness in an automated manner, real-time communications to instant disbursal of loans – across the many departments that service a mortgage. All achieved by combining different digital technologies such as APIs, state-of-the-art optical character recognition, machine learning, big data analytics, and more. And so, the mortgage process, a sum of different subprocesses, hitherto managed by different teams with their associated communication and coordination costs, is transformed to work in an almost seamless manner. Leveraging vast amounts of customer data, advanced technologies and always available digital interfaces, companies are consequently, able to re-construct processes that are not only operationally efficient but also enhance customers’ experience.

Digital transformation is often thought of as being all about technology, but how wrong is this?

In my early days in Technology Innovation, I spent considerable time researching and proposing use cases, based on new technologies, to internal business stakeholders. Even with detailed cost-benefit analysis, it was difficult to gain buy-in. Mostly, it had nothing to do with technology. But it had a lot to do with status quo bias.

Deep down, all humans are scared of change. It raises questions, forcing us to think much more than we’d like to. It’s uncomfortable. Therein, lies the problem that most traditional organizations face with digital transformation. It’s a new way of thinking about not just their systems but also processes and people. If a typical process that required 20 people to work on, after being transformed requires just 2 people, what happens to the other 18? If a process that interfaced with 10 systems to get data needs to interface with just 1 after transformation, then what happens to the other systems? If a new system churns out decisions based on data and algorithms, then who will be held responsible in the event of a dispute? How to convince teams used to functioning in silos to collaborate with other teams to fulfil customer requests or to build new solutions?

Digital Transformations raises questions around integrity, ethics, redundancy, culture – difficult questions that require a willingness to engage in honest, transparent dialogues across all levels and an ability to encourage diverse perspectives before one begins to formulate a transformation roadmap.

In your opinion, what are some of the most common mistakes organisations make when conducting a digital transformation project?

Intuitively, finding the right problems to solve should be the first step in any major transformation initiative. But exponential growth in technology, huge volumes of data being generated, demanding customer base, volatile competitive and regulatory forces amplify noise that companies typically get distracted by. Result? Companies end up choosing the wrong business case, leading to wasted efforts and resources.

The second mistake organizations make is not anticipating and responding to resistances well. Studies show that between 85% – 90% digital transformation projects fail. Like with any change management program, digital transformation projects should be planned for a host of stakeholders, both internal and external. Resistance can be from various quarters both within and outside an organization. Identifying the sources and the underlying reasons for the resistance would mean the difference between an initiative successfully seeing the light of the day and facing certain failure. Resistances often grow because the perceived benefits are not explained to the rest of the organization, giving room for dissent to grow. As with any challenge, resistance can also be viewed as an opportunity. It’s often tempting to dismiss resistance by overcoming it, but what if the reasons for the resistances hold the key to minimize the chances of the initiative failing? Unearthing the reasons, therefore, could hold the keys to understanding the problems well. Those who resist a change are also those who are closest to the process(es) or value chain being transformed. Their feedback can act as crucial inputs to iterate the program blueprint and avoid pitfalls that typically plague transformation projects.

The third mistake is connected to the second one, that of leadership teams not communicating clearly and frequently. From the CEO onwards, transparent communications on how a digital initiative will be advantageous and will bring much-needed clarity at all levels of an organization.

The fourth mistake is when organizations bet too much on a long-term vision, further alienating the detractors and even the sponsors. Short and mid-term wins spell out the return on investment, even if it’s in smaller measures. But the buy-in that those wins help to gain is crucial for supporting such initiatives in the longer run.

The last two mistakes I’m going to talk about are related to brand experience. Companies often focus on how their customers would perceive their brands through their products and services. But what about employees? What about internal applications and operations?
The fifth mistake, therefore, is not striking the right balance between being internally and externally focused. This is a classic case with many organizations focused on building the most digitally advanced apps for their customers. But internally, these organizations would still be transmitting information using hardbound file folders! Inevitably such structures impact the brand experience. Customers get to interact with snazzy digital web and mobile apps, but the behind-the-scenes request fulfilment processes move at their own pace as paper folders move from one department to another. Imagine the dichotomy of this reality!

The sixth biggest mistake is not investing in building the right talent base. Strong technology skills are a given. But what’s oft overlooked is building a workforce that can bridge the chasm between technology and business. Today, 60% of organisations face a gap in soft digital skills, compared to 50% that are grappling with hard digital skills’ gap. Increasing pace of automation means demand for skills such as collaboration, adaptability, critical thinking, persuasion and creativity – crucial competencies to build open ecosystems, both internally and externally – will only continue to grow. Organizations typically look at hiring external talent. It’s much easier sourcing talent than developing talent in-house. Upsides to investing in building the right mix of hard and soft skills internally are many – motivated and committed workforce, improved innovation capabilities, and faster time to market. And what do all these translate into? Strong brand experience not just for customers but also for employees.

People are the most critical enablers of digital transformation. Organizations earn the biggest competitive advantage when they support the upskilling and reskilling of their employees.

So is there a rough approach that would work for any organisation?

First, organizations should always have a good view of both the external and internal worlds. It’s just as important to know the latest moves of competition or what customers want as it’s to possess realistic insights into organizational capabilities and constraints.

Second, a solid understanding of the organizational priorities – its vision, mission, focus areas.

Third, strong comprehension of business priorities.

Fourth, an ability to combine the above three to arrive at a holistic understanding of where the organization is, where it should be and where it could be. For digital transformation teams, this is an important skill. Because it could lead to recommending better solutions, alternatives that improve customer experience, employee experience, operational efficiency, all three or much more. Importantly, this enables technology or digital teams to move up the value chain by partnering with business.

Fifth would be drawing a priority map by segmenting transformation opportunities, identified in the above four approaches. The map would section out initiatives by complexity, time to implement and benefits. Clearly, defining short, mid and long-term projects. The priority map would also help organizations assess, plan, and develop key enablers such as people and technology.

Sixth would be drawing up a set of measures to gauge the transformation progress. An example would be measures that incentivise cross-functional collaboration. Measures should be easy to understand, implement and iterate based on feedback.

Lastly, regular communication with all stakeholders, progress reviews, financial sponsorship, and investment in building a digital talent workforce are critical to ensuring the success of digital transformation projects.

Digital Transformation within organisations can be difficult, but what is the importance of people in executing the technical aspects?

A mistaken belief is that digital transformation is mostly about technology. Nothing could be further from the truth. The success of digital transformation strongly hinges on people. People who conceptualise transformation cases and people who turn those into reality. But the pace at which technology is introduced, the pace at which technology matures and the pace at which technology is replaced continue to only accelerate.

As a result, delivery cycles and learning curves have become shorter.

So, what does this mean for people working in technology?

Shorter delivery cycles demand new skills when not just technologies but even the ways to develop and deploy digital transformation have changed. Agile, DevOps and Continuous Delivery demand a new kind of discipline and delivery focus. These modern ways of working emphasize on autonomous teams, staffed with employees who are multi-skilled and cross-skilled. Autonomy reduces the communication and coordination costs that arise from dependency on multiple teams, resulting in faster time to market. The shift from T-Shaped to M-shaped expertise means it’s difficult for people to get away with being technology specialists, working in the same technology for years, even decades. The shorter shelf life of technology has meant continual learning is the key to survival.

Add automation to the mix and it gets interesting. It’s estimated that up to 80% of IT’s work can be automated with advancements in AI. Technology workers who enjoy problem-solving, are curious, adaptable, creative and good communicators – these are the skilled people who’ll continue to be in demand long into the future. This is true even today. Those who focus on not just building or developing technology but also adept at communicating the business benefits are highly valued. Technical skills, when combined with “big-picture thinking” ability, will elevate and differentiate the best from the crowd.

Automation is often a big part of digital transformation discussions, which in turn increases the conversation about the movement of jobs to automation. What do you suggest people can do to ensure they remain relevant in an ‘age of automation’?

3 things I believe each one of us should do to stay relevant and if possible, reinvent ourselves are –

  1. Constantly try to stay ahead on the learning curve by building and strengthening skills in emerging technology areas
  2. Be aware of the changes that are occurring both within one’s organizational and external contexts. Researching and networking are helpful strategies as the more informed one is, the better-prepared one is to pivot or adapt their upskilling roadmap
  3. Focus on developing soft skills such as collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, and persuasion. It’ll be our innately human strengths that’ll differentiate us in a world where machines will soon take over activities such as programming, data analysis and more

Digital transformation is strongly linked to a desire to change the customer experience, which is generally a culture change. Who should be driving the transformation?

The short answer is everybody. It’s partnership and collaboration at scale.

For transformation to be successful, it has to be both top-down and bottom-up driven. Across the business, support and technology functions. Involving all levels of an organization. Everything that a company does is to serve its customers, so customer experience is the responsibility of not just customer-facing functions but also the other departments. When transformation is first conceptualized and planned, heavy involvement from the top leadership is a must. Not only does it signal to the rest of the organization how important the transformation is but also sets the expectations at all levels to ensure success. Leaders from business and technology teams have to demonstrate that digital transformation is jointly led and managed. Just as business knowledge is crucial to focus on solving the right problems for customers, the knowledge to apply the right technology along with an understanding of its capabilities and limitations are critical too. Early stages are also characterised by communications from the senior leadership, especially around communicating benefits, addressing concerns, even managing scepticism.

But for transformation to scale and sustain, employees should feel a sense of ownership. Change happens best when everyone cares about the end result.

Technology is fast-paced and ever-changing. What do you see as the next biggest disruption to watch out for?

There are many technologies that have far-reaching consequences when it comes to disruption. AI and Distributed Technologies will be two areas that will change the way insights are generated and new value chains brought to life.

Having said that, I’m a firm believer, that technology is an enabler to help us serve our customers, employees, partners, economies and ecosystems in the best possible ways. If we were to think of AI, would customer experience be the best, if algorithms did all the recommendations? I suspect, a human nudge will still be required to help customers make decisions, especially in complex and critical areas such as financial services, healthcare, education and government services.

Distributed technologies such as Blockchain are causing major paradigm shifts, creating new business models and giving credence to a topic close to my heart – improving social impact through inclusion. While a lot is being spoken about on customer and brand experience, the next frontier for digital transformation should be building, across all societal echelons, a more level playing field, one that is transparent and equitable.

This interview is exclusive to The Business Transformation Network.

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