Insights from the frontlines of digital transformation: a CEO’s perspective

  • Nov 9, 2018,
  • By Jeneane Crawford
Ronnen Armon

Ronnen Armon co-founded Capriza 7 years ago after a long and storied career as an engineer and product designer. Focused on simplifying the corporate approvals process, Capriza has launched a number of solutions focused on streamlining approvals for executives, managers, and users alike. Ronnen sat down recently to discuss how Capriza came to be, the challenges faced by organizations when it comes to digital transformation, and what the future holds in the transformation space.

As an engineer by training and trade, how did you end up focusing on approvals and processes? In other words, how is it that you came to co-found Capriza?

(Laughs) That’s a great way to start because I love the path we’ve taken to get here. And I’m proud of my own personal path which is indeed based on my background as an engineer.

I’m certainly not the first person to notice that large organizations are characterized by a lot of complexity. And I’m not the first person to notice that it quickly turns in to a real burden for users for even the most mundane of tasks, maybe especially in the most mundane tasks. I saw that people around me would go to great lengths to avoid interacting with that complexity and the processes that contribute to it.

But I think the engineer in me is really just the manifestation of my personality: I like to solve problems and I like to help people. And seeing co-workers and colleagues figuratively banging their heads into the desk over complex things that could be and should be simple inspired me to say to myself, “hang on…this is something that can be fixed. This is something that should be fixed. And I feel like I’ve got the ability to fix it.”

That’s really the start of Capriza and our ApproveSimple solution. Seeing a problem that affects a lot of people and having a moment of clarity where it made too much sense to not go forward and try to help.

So how does being an engineer factor into where things are now? Does that impact how you make decisions at Capriza?

100%, absolutely. Being an engineer made it a part of me to ask thoughtful questions, to dig as deep as necessary into each domain, to drive a concise and clear set of priorities, and to strive for an improvement path on whatever dimension that is critical for the business. Those are valuable skills whether you’re building products, teams, or a company.

But there also has to be room for intuition, for the place where gut-feel gets the call. As CEO, I challenge myself to make the most of available data but not to the point to choke off intuition. Especially in a startup a certain amount of “chaos” is welcome. So there is a balance. I count on my overall experience – my analytical, engineer side – to help me guide the company so that enough thoughtful “bets” are taken without putting the company into jeopardy.

Some people think of “digital transformation” as a philosophy as opposed to an endpoint. The idea is that transformation is a process and in an ever-changing business environment, that process may never actually finish. Do you agree with that notion?

Not necessarily. I believe there is an endpoint, a measurable goal. But that’s not exclusive to there being a set of key projects in motion which lead you to feel that transformation is never done. In that sense I agree that digital transformation is a philosophy or a culture. If you are constantly looking for ways to out-pace your competition through technology, you probably subscribe to such a culture/philosophy.

On the other hand, I believe transformation happens in waves. A digital transformation might mean a company moving everything to the cloud or outsourcing non-critical services. Those are definitely acts that have milestones and where completion can be achieved.

The use of the word “waves” feels appropriate. Some leaders feel like a digital transformation can grow in size like a wave until it crashes down on them. What’s the biggest mistake you see out there when organizations start a digital transformation?

Digital Transformation means different things to different people and organizations. But for the most part I agree: it can easily become overwhelming. The biggest mistake? For starters, building a roadmap with too many initiatives and so much uncertainty can be a recipe for disaster. We see leaders that are genuinely trying to do the “right” thing but will find quickly that they have piled on too much for their capacity and ability.

We also see a failure to understand how systems are integrated, as hard as that seems to believe. In larger organizations many components are tied together to deliver business value. Modernizing one piece immediately becomes dependent on modernizing another with a tough domino effect that calls for huge long-term investment before seeing tangible results.

So I think that would be it. My suggestion would be to avoid biting off more than you can chew, especially early on. Keep it simple.

Ok, so then where should leaders start? Where or what is a good jumping off point for a digital transformation?

The best starting point is somewhere where it touches people’s lives. I know that seems simple and maybe it is. But shouldn’t a change in technology, a change in process be one that helps someone have a better day? Ideally your employees, but it could be your partners or customers. Furthermore, I would have looked at technologies that help bring down barriers, promote collaboration and sharing, and make the work of employees significantly easier than it used to be. It’s hard to go wrong if you start with the idea that you can make someone’s day at work better, more productive, less frustrating. And my belief is that it starts by simplifying things.

It’s refreshing to focus on the users instead of just action for action’s sake. Any other advice for a CIO or executive looking to embark on a digital transformation?

There are of course many ways to get digital transformation wrong. But the two that we see most often are firstly trying to do too much in parallel which causes the process to be long and agonizing, and secondly, by placing too much focus on systems/infrastructure instead of the users.

Digital Transformation is not just plainly investing in technology – companies have done that for years. Rather, digital transformation is about taking a fresh look at your software stack and making a meaningful move forward. It’s about leveraging what’s new and innovative not because you can, but because it’s the right thing to do to make life simpler for employees, partners, and users.

CIOs often come onboard with great intentions to transform their business in too grandiose a fashion. Despite their best intentions, they often fall into the traps we mentioned above: too much change at once with too short of a timeline.

Steer clear of those issues and you’ll definitely be on the right track.

Are there others in the organization that should be working with the CIO or helping out?

Absolutely. The CIO is the right address to implement such transformation given the obvious fact of being the person in charge of the business systems in place. But that understates the role of teamwork and collaboration. These systems are designed and enforced by different executive members – functional and business – like Finance, HR, Sales etc. Successful transformation should start with addressing real problems for the people themselves, not an abstraction. This absolutely begs for collaboration between a functional team(s) and relevant people in IT.

It’s painful when there is a disconnect between IT and, say, Finance. For example, sometimes expectations around timing are off where the users want results “now, now, now” and IT recognizes the process takes a little longer. Teamwork and communication are paramount to a smooth digital transformation.

I think there is a big opportunity to help users – employees, contractors, vendors, customers – at the “edges” of the enterprise. A lot of the systems being put in place serve power-users at corporate headquarters. But the farther you go from HQ, you find users overwhelmed with system complexity, connectivity issues, and casual usage. Any process that could be simplified and decoupled from a corporate backend system is ripe for innovation and, likely, simplification.

You’ve used the word “simple” a lot so far. And reducing complexity and making things simple does make sense. Can you remember a time that stood out where some new technology or new line of thinking made you think “that’s going to make things so much easier?”

Oh, this one is easy. The proliferation of smartphones and the realization most people had that it’s pretty easy to do a lot on a relatively small device. Do you realize that just a decade ago we didn’t much think of writing emails and or creating task lists on our phones? Now we do those things – and much much more – every day on our phones.

In handling approvals I saw the perfect marriage of an “annoying task” that requires attention, but still a fairly simple one that could be accomplished on one’s phone. Some processes require big tools and data sets, but approvals aren’t one of them.

You’re right, the introduction and adoption of smartphones has changed a lot of how we work and play. What’s the change you see in companies themselves when it comes to accelerating adoption of technology and digital transformation?

One thing that’s becoming more common is the introduction of the role of Chief Digital Officer. In many cases, this role is exclusively about planning and directing transformation. However, I expect that sooner or later many of those roles will actually disappear as more and more CIOs are inherently expected to manage the company’s digital transformation directly.

So how do you make sure that Capriza is helping the CIO or CDO lead a transformation while also ensuring the interests of those end-users are being served as well?

We spend a lot of time listening to the market to help inform not just our product strategy, but also our onboarding processes and interactions. It’s easy to say “we listen to the market” when you’re having an occasional conversation that confirms what you already thought. But I am very proud of our team at Capriza in how we constantly work with our current users and people interested in our solutions to ask, “how is the experience with X?” or “what’s frustrating to you about how your company handles Y?”

We find that having lots of conversations like that with different users and executives across organizations keeps our work and passion aligned with CIOs and the users they themselves serve. And I think those people trust us to actually listen and make their day at work better and reduce complexity.

To make things simpler for them.

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Jeneane Crawford

Jeneane leads marketing initiatives at Capriza. Prior to joining Capriza, she managed demand generation for both large enterprises and start-ups marketing a diverse array of technologies.

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