This episode of the Project Management Paradise podcast features a discussion on Digital Transformation with John McGrath, a lecturer at the Dublin Institute of Technology, a trainer and a much sought-after speaker on project management.

John McGrath has been a trusted advisor to over 200 global companies, government agencies, state enterprises, Engineers Ireland, the United Nations, the London and Rio Paralympics, and the World Bank.


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Transcript: Episode 79 “Digital Transformation – the why is easy, the how is hard” with John McGrath

Hello John and welcome back to the podcast. You have been our guest back in episode 7. How have things been since?

I’ve been pretty busy. I have continued teaching in the Institute of Technology in Dublin. One of the challenges I’m finding now is that a lot of my clients are taking on far more strategic projects. I think that really creates additional challenges as opposed to the more traditional linear type projects.

A lot of these strategic change initiatives are a project management initiative but also change management initiatives. That certainly creates certain complications, so it’s not just a change in processes, it is a change in people’s mindsets and skillset. That is certainly a significant challenge that organizations are having at the moment.

So, you are lecturing at the in the Institute of Technology in Dublin, but you are doing some speaking gigs as well?

Yes, one exciting initiative we have was that we actually launched two new Masters Programs in IT. So, we now have a master’s program for executives which is a block release program for a full-time Masters, for recent graduates. In terms of the speaking, yes, I think, I did over 20 different keynotes around the world last year, everywhere from Europe to India to the US. Thankfully, in a lot of those, I was sent by the Cora Systems, so I am delighted for the opportunity to speak on their behalf.

Yeah, I think it’s been a great year for project management. In Ireland, here where I am based, we’ve seen some major changes with the largest project management conference this year, and for the first time, we have had a project management awards, which was organized by Irish Chapter of PMI. It was sold out, we didn’t have enough seats available for the crowd. It has been a very good year for project management and it has certainly lifted with the rising economies.

Can you tell us, first of all, how you got interested in that whole area and secondly, what is it in your definition or in your view?

Ok, well, in terms of my own involvement, very much it’s driven by clients and challenges in terms of trying to support organizations. And one thing I think is quite interesting about digital transformation is that it is as relevant in the public sector as it is in the private sector. A lot of organizations are really trying to move the business model from analog to digital.

I suppose in the private sector is very much driven in terms of competitiveness and wherein the public sector is very much about this constant quest of doing more with less and the streamlining, creating efficiency. It doesn’t really matter whether you have customers or citizens, digital transformation is a challenge to all organizations.

I think there has been a very much a drive and focusing on efficiency and relevance and creating a digital toolset is a part of that. A very simple example might be, here in Ireland Passport Office where previously would have been a very manual process where you had to turn up in person and we actually see now that the Passport Office is largely disclosed to the public, unless by appointment and you can now essentially apply for your passport using your webcam.

The whole process has become digital. And then in terms of the wider I suppose and mass of a digital transformation we’re staying at the moment is in the whole area of self-driving vehicles. I don’t think any of us in our lifetime would have thought that we would have seen what is very likely in the next number of years, the end of the internal combustion engine. That’s an example of digital transformation in the motor Industry.

In terms of health and in terms of medical services what would be the end result of digital transformation, well you could almost imagine that if somebody was involved in a serious accident, when an emergency crew arrived, they may take somebody’s fingerprints and they don’t even have to be conscious and they can get access to the medical history, blood group on the scene.

On a far more simple level, we could have an integration of public services where for example if you know with the internet buying of things and health and housing become far more connected. We may have a situation whereby we can track if an elderly person hasn’t turned on the kettle in the morning or has they gone downstairs and turn on the lights that in turn could notify a relative or could even notify the post office who instead of just simply delivering the letter would actually knock on somebody’s door to check if they are ok. It doesn’t have to be a highly technical the end result, it could be something as simple as pure communication or pure networking or knowledge sharing may be the essence of the digital transformation.

Is it just about technology, is it simply digitizing what used to be a more labor-intensive paper-based system?

I think that’s a large part of the challenges in digital transformation is that there is an obsession with the technology. But, really, the technology is simply the medium, it’s not the end result, it’s a toolset. In fact, one of the positives I found is when organizations adopt more of the project management approach in terms of project selection, benefits realization, aligning the strategy, they are far more successful you know.

For example, there was a time when an organization bought a series of iPads for the senior leadership team, they believed they have become digital. In reality, really becoming digital is about a full integration of digital into your business and your service delivery model. In fact, the latest research indicates that you know the most successful organization don’t distinguish between business strategy and digital strategy, they recognize that the digital and business strategy are one of the same.

I think a massive indicator of that we’re probably looking that the digital economy is growing at 7 times the pace of the more traditional economy. So, in terms of your organization isn’t a part of that change, it’s gonna be left behind. That’s very much where I think that the incentive to embrace digital is coming from. Essentially, it’s customer-driven, it has been always the main driver of all business initiatives.

In terms of choosing the technology, are choosing to embrace digital is one of the key takeaways is to do this with a project management approach?

I would say, when you are trying to transform an organization ultimately it’s about change and change is never welcome in any large or small organization. There are two approaches to it. The PM approach is more about the toolset of processes but I think the people changing, the people require a change management approach. I think it’s actually getting the alignment of all of those and in terms of where the organization looks to the get to in terms of destination is a gap analysis and that cap is the indicator that there are the changes in the people side of it and there are changes in the process side of it.

A great example that is actually there globally in terms of organizations having attempted to transform is the educational system in terms of a primary or secondary level education. When the government decided that they would introduce a computer’s into schools, they were very strong when it comes to delivering the computers to school, but did very little in terms of supporting teachers in becoming computer literate.

That’s an example where I think that perhaps, this is an international trend. All countries that he dropped the ball and recognized the importance of people in bringing the technology into schools which is a digital transformation initiative. I think you got to do both and what’s amazing is always you’ll find a very extensive budget for the tool, technology, the security and in terms of bringing the people along with it happens to be a very little budget with that.

And really transformation is about changing the mindset, skillset, and I suppose also try I think it’s about you now embracing the power of people in terms of when they are on board and they see the value in it I think that’s very important. And perhaps, as well, I think a massive, I suppose, challenge for senior leadership team is to give the absolute power in terms of how this will impact a headcount in an organization, in terms of future job security, and radiating you know some very honest and frank discussions have to have around that.

And if it is, and if you don’t give that to the vocal, open, honest communication I think any digital transformation is doomed. But I also think that we should accept in terms of our own current skills that we should be asking the question in terms of five, ten, or 15 years will it be required. So, for example, if somebody is in their twenties at the moment and they are a lorry driver or driving any sort of people, in terms of whether that will be required in 5 or 10 years, it’s certainly going to be decreased. If we take a look at, for example, call centres, it’s highly unlikely we will have the large volume of people working in call centres with the internet and in terms of the Artificial Intelligence.

Most likely every call center will be fully automated with robots rather than people in the years to come. Must be a couple million people around the globe who are working in call centers, are without a doubt, those jobs will go. I suppose even in terms of my own role as a teacher. I mean what is absolutely clear is that bringing information for the classroom it is no longer enough. Students have all the information they need in their pocket on their smartphone.

You know, the smartphone from maybe 5 years ago the like of an iPhone 4 or 5 or something like that, that had more computing power than the NASA had when they put the first man on the moon. It’s not about bringing information in the years ahead; it’s about bringing inspiration to the classroom. Students will come to the table with information but really what we have to do is to bring that you know material relevant in practice, and I suppose you know, rather than delivering lectures to the third level students in years to come, it will be about delivering workshops and how we can get the students to harness the knowledge as opposed to just book learning.

How do we know we are competing, if we’re up to speed with what our competitors might be doing?

You know, digital transformation is a journey as opposed to an end destination. In terms of changing business and changing how we communicate over the next 10 years is going to be far more dramatic than over the last 50 years. I really think that to be complacent about it is a bad thing and if we actually take a look at you know there is no question that in terms of your industry sector, in terms of your business, it is going to be impacted by digital.

In some industries, it has already gone to that. A music industry is an obvious example because all people will consume some form of music. If you actually think about it, in the early days when we had the Sony, the EMI Music and then we had a peer to peer, you know a free, illegally downloading music, their response was to take legal actions to them, even to their customers. Really, what they were missing is that their business model was no longer relevant, it changed and they have been replaced by the development of Apple’s iTunes.

And even Apple, as a global giant, they have been taken over by the Spotify in terms of music. That is the challenge if you think that you are a market leader, the competitors will always challenge you. The amazing thing is that it was almost the barrier that you know competing in markets because of geography, because of telecommunications, because of a company size. And with the cloud and with digital, we found that when an industry is disrupted it’s always by a start-up, it’s a new company.

It’s never the giants, the leaders, it’s always somebody new. When we wonder about who’s going to create the next Spotify, what it’s going to be, if I was you, I would look in any industry that hasn’t been impacted by digital yet, try to find some way to digitize part of the business model. It is a huge opportunity in that. I think to be complacent in any business is a bad thing. If you actually think about the level of digitizing in own personal lives is dramatic, and in large organizations very often there’s a lot of talking about it.

I like to use the term digital fog in which organizations know they must act in terms of digital but there are so many choices, it’s hard to know where to begin and therefore the organizations often don’t react. Generally, when we have some sort of problem or a challenge in an organization, the problem is the form and it needs a signature because it needs to be approved by someone in the organization. I think there will be such dramatic change in the years ahead.

Whose role is it to ensure that the digital transformation is on the agenda?

That’s a good question. In terms of their perception of the organization, they may believe it’s the CIO but first I think it really has to be driven top-down by your leadership team. Prior to those challenges, very often more traditional business leaders don’t understand digital.

I even hear when somebody says they work in digital in the organization, they are almost given the look of – you guys are those people sitting in the bean bags in the office. I think it’s led by the top-down but it also has to be supported bottom-top. That’s really where you need to create the mindset in the organization. It may be created by the IT department or the CIO, but really the mindset of any strategic initiative it really has to be led top-down and people give it good support to make it happen.

Show Notes

Connect with John McGrath on LinkedIn.

Listen to John McGrath’s previous appearance on the Project Management Paradise Podcast