Technology can play an invaluable role in supporting a business’s commercial strategy, offering exciting growth possibilities and opening up new opportunities. But how do you lead a digital transformation when the product you sell is not a technology, but a service designed to help people understand and improve their pensions?
Profile Pensions have found multiple ways to harness technology so that it constantly transforms and improves the business. Here CTO, Mohamed Brahim, explains some of the lessons they’ve learnt along the way.
Business and technology strategies must work in tandem
Building a cohesive leadership structure where technology is well-represented and can influence decisions beyond programme management and execution takes careful planning. We don’t believe it is possible to transform from a technology-enabled business (any business which uses some form of technology) into a sustainable technology-driven business (where technology influences the culture to unlock growth and innovation) without a strong alignment and shared vision about the role of technology at a leadership level.
To combine a business strategy with a technology strategy, you must be able to take a short-term tactical view on each whilst maintaining a long-term vision for both. It doesn’t matter if you buy technology off the shelf, or whether you mostly build it in-house, that strategic alignment is key to fully leveraging technology and transforming a business.
Put simply, you must be able to articulate a great business vision and understand the potential of technology to achieve it, while at the same time being able to articulate a great technology vision and the role this will play in shaping and delivering the business vision.
There are several indicators which show when this strategic alignment is not in place:
- Your IT department is a cost centre and a service, rather than being involved in the business strategy
- Your IT department is ring-fenced from the rest of the organisation by a rigid change process, rather than being in tune with the business mission
- The technology roadmap has its own objectives and does not start with the business strategy
- People in the business don’t really care about technology and don’t understand why software always takes longer than planned
Signs that this alignment is in place include:
- Senior executives are able to have open discussions with software engineers or technologists in the business and are confident that they share a clear understanding of priorities
- Cross-functional teams operate with marketing, product, operations and developers deciding, planning, working on and delivering technology together in line with the business vision
- Technology is treated as a core part of the foundations of the business.
Using tech responsibly
Starting with a clear strategic alignment is key to using technology responsibly and effectively. This can be done through the creation of a ‘technology roadmap’ which articulates your long-term vision for the business.
At Profile Pensions, we de-mystify pensions for customers and provide data-driven pensions advice. To do that we need to be good with data, so we use the best data-driven technologies available. Data security is a top priority, so our architecture is cloud native and multi-cloud to leverage the best in class security defences offered by major cloud providers such as AWS and Google Cloud Platform. We also need to support the business strategy and potential pivots, which means we need to be quick at moving information, so we chose to be Docker (Kubernetes) and serverless native.
Building trust is a big part of our mission to solve the pensions advice gap, so our connectivity and availability have to be excellent at all times. We won’t compromise on that. This means we need to be as modular as possible and strive towards small, loosely coupled systems or micro-services that minimise disruption when something goes wrong.
Beyond these guiding principles, it is difficult to fully architect a system in advance, but whoever is in charge of your engineering must be able to articulate credibly how the technology roadmap aligns with the business vision.
Here are three lessons we’ve learnt that have helped us use technology effectively:
Lesson 1: Build solid foundations
You will need solid foundations when it comes to scaling-up and when constructing these foundations, you must be agile and a have clear idea of what you are building.
Every piece of code we write is considered an experiment. By experiment, we mean that it is of the simplest design, but with the highest level of quality and at a low cost. Before we consider it part of our foundational capabilities, it must be comprehensively tested and validated to ensure it is reliable and maintainable. It is everybody’s job to ensure it works satisfactorily. The main benefit of this approach is that as we build technology, our business adapts to it and understands it.
Lesson 2: Deliver value quickly whilst learning a lot
There is no recipe that dictates which area of the business to start with and every company is different. But what works well for us is to identify any bottleneck impacting our customer journey so that we can scale and double down all our tech resources to focus on that problem and solve it quickly. By being focused we learn more about both technical and cultural challenges and are able to adapt to changes in business strategy.
Don’t embark on large programmes that may take years to materialise. It’s going to be an expensive commitment and by the time you get there, the world may already have changed.
Lesson 3: Don’t be dogmatic about tech
We constantly change the way we engineer software to meet our goals meaning our development process is very fluid as a result. You need an engineering team that thrives in a changing environment and enjoys learning new things. We’ve focused on hiring for flexibility and a solid engineering mindset more than on excelling with a particular language or stack. What’s constant is the visibility of the short-term and long-term goals.
Your technology strategy cannot ignore people, culture and mindset
The biggest challenge with any digital transformation is the required change in culture and mindset. Rather than technology being seen as a service, with stakeholders unilaterally dictating timelines and priorities, it must be accepted as a core part of the business that influences the direction of the transformation.The impact on people and culture is not to be underestimated, quite often, transformation programmes focus on adapting technology to the culture and ways of working, which invariably leads to better systems but not to a step change in growth.
For us, technology in many ways has always transformed how we operate, creating new types of jobs and different ways of working that have helped us to develop our business. The amount of paper coming into our office has fallen from 100% to virtually zero, and we’ve reduced our operational headcount by 50%, whilst achieving 50% year-on-year revenue growth. These changes are evidence of a successful digital transformation but if people continued to work in exactly the same way, it would probably be a sign the transformation has not fully happened.