Sorting Out the Woes of Digital Migrations and Transitions

When a company adopts new tech resources internally or finds itself at the mercy of changes made by an outside provider, there can be a laundry list of problems to resolve as part of the transition.

Software and data might not perform or be accessible as expected after updates; website links can get broken after a migration; new search engine algorithms might bury content; and abrupt changes by a third-party platform, such as rebranding and redirecting with little notice, can cause unwelcome chaos.

Organizations naturally try to mitigate such issues, but sometimes the problem can seem out of hand.

Kathy Kay, executive vice president and CIO of Principal Financial Group, shared her perspective with InformationWeek on overseeing tech changes from within and without.

Changes in technology can be like trying on a new set of clothes, sometimes by choice and sometimes not. When there is a digital transition, what are some pain points that organizations face? What should they start to think about to address them?

First of all, I’ll say I’ve never had those issues. I’m not sure what you’re talking about.

Just kidding.

In a company of our size, we are always going to have something going on where we are transitioning. We are creating a new capability or migrating from one technology to another because it’s the nature of our business when you’re listening to customers and you’re getting feedback and responding, but also the pace at which technology is changing. I’m sure this is true with most companies, there is always an element of some sort of a transition.

The best case is when it’s clear why we’re doing it. How is it aligned to your strategy or to the customer feedback that we’re getting? How will it really solve a problem that you had? People get enamored with new technology and we’ve got to bring it in, but it’s not clear why they’re bringing it in. So, you migrate to it and then there’s all this disconnect. So, I often say the technology is the easy part. It’s the change management, it’s understanding the impacts that it will have on your customers, or your users, and then making sure you understand the outcomes you’re trying to achieve. Can you measure them so that you can get quick feedback? If there are issues you mentioned that week, how do you get that quick feedback so that you can make changes very quickly? Those are the things that make the circumstances, the situation, the environment much more easy to make the transition even when there are issues.

Does it help to have one person who takes direct responsibility for overseeing this or maybe a small team that serves as transition handlers?

We are running predominantly an agile organization, and so you have these teams that are empowered to make the decisions. They’re self-organizing folks; it’s clear who is making the decision, how they’re prioritizing the work at hand. We’ve started to talk about when there are things that are going to be pretty impactful. We always want clear lines of accountability, but then you also want to be clear on who’s making the decisions because that sometimes gets unclear over time, whereby somebody who thinks they can make a decision could steer things maybe in the wrong direction. We set up the right environment and clear lines of accountability, so it won’t distract the team or slow down or head in a direction that wasn’t intended. Clear lines of accountability are incredibly important and then clear lines of who is making what decisions are as equally important.

Does it help or make things more complicated to have an outside party come in to be the expert to oversee a transition or does it really require an in-house team to be hands-on to direct change?

I’m a firm believer that if we have a gap in a capability, whether it’s knowing how to make a migration or manage through a change, and we need help from an external provider to teach us, then by all means we should bring them in. At the end of the day, though, we’re still accountable even when we have external partners coming in. Being clear also with our teams and knowing we still own this, we still are accountable, but we might need partners to help us when we might have a capability gap.

Is there any consensus on how long a good testing or vetting period should last or when a new resource is “safe” to open up to everyone in the organization?

It really does depend on the scale of the change and the impact. For example, we are towards the end of migrating to ServiceNow, which is huge. We do it in iterative implementations. It goes in a cadenced manner, and we decide that based on how we want to roll in certain capabilities and who would be impacted. We’ll have a group first that will be a smaller subset of that part of the organization. If that looks great, then we’ll start the rollout of the rest and depending on scale. It’s just to manage the change, to manage the risk, and to make sure that we’re learning as something might not have gone as well in the previous situation. You can learn and continue to roll out. We do the same with our customers when we’re rolling out changes that might be significant. You’ll roll it out to certain amount of customers at a time.

Has it become easier or more complicated to deal with these kinds of transitions? On the one hand, we’re all moving into this digital-first, cloud-first world but then there’s so many elements and pieces that are now part of the mix. If you pull one tiny digital thread, who knows what can unravel?

It can be complex if you have a really complex environment. A lot of what we’ve been doing is we’ve been trying to build digital capabilities and modernize and eliminate some of the legacy tech debt that we have to really simplify. In the cases that we’ve been able to simplify and standardized, it makes migrations and change much easier to implement. In cases where we’re moving to a significantly new set of capabilities, then we have to manage the change and you have to be more thoughtful because of the amount of moving parts. If you’re API based, it’s easier to manage that part than the historic sort of big migrations.

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