BoxWorks 2019 provides a digital transformation progress check from execs and enterprises

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When your company is 97 years old and grows in part through mergers and acquisitions, you’re going to have a variety of technology products running the business — or as Bob Burkhart puts it, “We have just about one of every solution and several of many.”

As the mobile and collaboration infrastructure leader at Nationwide Insurance, Burkhart is grappling with the same issue facing many B2B enterprises trying to pursue digital transformation: not simply developing or finding new technologies to deliver better customer experiences, but simply trying to consolidate and better manage what Nationwide already owns.

Speaking in a session at BoxWorks 2019 in San Francisco on Thursday, Burkhart said his firm’s digital transformation is based on an approach Nationwide calls “Fit For Purpose.” In other words, what tools work best for a specific job? In the case of things like cloud storage, which Box offers, getting rid of one tool over another wasn’t necessarily the answer.

“Every one of (these tools) has a use case, a sweet spot, per sae, within our organization,” he said. 

Nationwide determined that for document sharing and collaboration among employees, for example, Microsoft Office was the best fit for that particular purpose. When it comes time to share files with associates, customers, partners and other external third parties, however, Box’s security and management features make more sense, he said.

“It’s actually meant we’ve moved a lot of people off of Box,” he said, “because we looked at the people who are using Box and there were a lot of people who were sharing internally, and that just didn’t make sense.”

This kind of picking and choosing is just one example of where organizations are trying to make greater progress on digital transformation, or what Ginni Rometty, IBM’s CEO, described as “chapter two” in an interview during the BoxWorks opening keynote session.

“In chapter one we new startups, we were creating customer-facing changes and front ends, apps and so on, or easy things you could move to the cloud,” she said.

“We’ve had a lot fo clients that say this is good, but now I have these random acts of digital. (The tools) are everywhere, and they’re not connected. The front-ends bash into these back ends, and they’re pretty brittle.”

Rometty said she believes “chapter two” of digital transformation will involve not only being more selective about technology use cases but moving mission-critical applications into hybrid cloud environments, making applications more flexible and developing better workflows. Digital transformation is also driven by different motivations, she said.

“We used to be afraid of new companies (like startups),” she said. “Now we see that companies are afraid of existing competitors getting really good with data.”

In a private session with media, Box co-founder and CEO Aaron Levie admitted that a recent meeting with enterprise CEOs underscored the struggle for many firms to move at the pace they would like.

“It’s always good to remember that we are in this crazy bubble universe in the Valley, where we make something and we think three to six weeks later, the world will adopt it,” he said in response to a question from B2B News Network. “In a large enterprise, it takes years for people and process change. When you talk to these CEOs, technology is the least interesting part of the conversation. It’s how do you get your employees to think differently so you can work faster, be more collaborative?”

Another complicating factor is that digital transformation doesn’t always happen through official directives but through the actions of individual employees and departments who can now access SaaS tools without the IT department.

At World Fuel Services, senior director of IT Julio Pereira said his team has tried to stay part of such decisions by offering an “application matrix” that identifies the various types of tools and the use cases that relate to them.

“It’s not intended to dictate what they should use but to guide them,” he said. “‘What are we trying to do?’ — that should be your decision-making approach.”

While many organizations will doubtless be further along in digital transformation a few years from now, that doesn’t mean they’ll be able to relax. Quite the opposite, suggested Slack co-founder and CEO of Slack.

“Anything that’s automatable will eventually be automated. But work is also harder (as a result),” he said during a panel discussion of CEOs near the end of BoxWorks’s first day. “Fifty years go people did arithmetic for a living, but now machines do that ridiculously better. We see the same thing now with a lot of work that needs to be driven by our creativity. It becomes harder to perform, but also harder to manage.”

BoxWorks 2019 wraps up Friday.

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Shane Schick is the Editor-in-Chief of B2B News Network. He is the former Editor-in-Chief of Marketing magazine and has also been Vice-President, Content & Community (Editor-in-Chief), at IT World Canada, a technology columnist with the Globe and Mail and was the founding editor of ITBusiness.ca. Shane has been recognized for journalistic excellence by the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance and the Canadian Online Publishing Awards.