When Barry Libenson first arrived at Experian as Global CIO in 2015, he knew that the job would be a challenge. As one of the world’s largest data companies, with leading positions in the credit, automotive and healthcare markets, the CIO’s role is especially crucial for driving the business.
So he devoted his first few months at the firm to looking around, talking to people and taking the measure of the place. “I especially wanted to see what our customers had on their roadmap for the next 12-24 months,” he told me and everywhere he went he heard the same thing. They wanted access to real-time data.
If Experian was a startup, that would have been a relatively simple task, but the decades-old company relies on the legacy systems it has built to maintain an extremely high level of reliability and security. So Libenson embarked on a journey to transform Experian’s digital infrastructure and, in the process, transformed its business as well.
Identifying a Keystone Change
Moving from a traditional computing architecture to the cloud is no small task for any organization, but for a company with Experian’s massive digital infrastructure and global reach, the challenges were especially daunting. Libenson couldn’t just pull a few switches and expect to make the transition successfully.
“There was a lot of concern that we were going to disrupt our own business and that we would lose control of our data,” Libenson told me. “For years, Experian’s business model was based on a traditional architecture. There were also security concerns. So there were obviously lots of important questions that we needed to be sure to address.”
So Libenson set out to identify a keystone change, one that would represent a clear and tangible goal, involve multiple stakeholders and pave the way for more transformational changes down the road. So he started by developing API’s for internal use rather than going straight to customer-facing features.
The effect of the initiative was subtle, but important because it got people working together and showed what was possible. Building the API’s required collaboration across the IT organization. Application developers found that they could access data more easily, business unit leaders were able to get new products out the door more quickly and customers started to notice better service.
It was a relatively small step, but got the ball rolling. “Once we developed some internal API’s, people could see that there was vast potential and we gained some momentum,” Libenson remembers.
Making the Organizational Shift
One of the most common misconceptions about any digital transformation is that it’s only about hardware and software. Yet just as important as getting the technology right is the human transformation that’s required. “Going from one software release a year to as many as 30 or 40 a year requires everybody to change the way they work,” Libenson told me.
“The organizational changes were pretty enormous,” he continues. “For example, agile development requires far more collaboration than traditional waterfall development, so we need to physically reconfigure how people were organized. We also needed different skill sets in different places so that required more changes and so on.”
That’s no small thing. In every organization, but especially in one that’s been successful as long as Experian, people have developed firm ideas about how to do things and, not without reason, they believe that these principles are critical to their success. So behaviors become ingrained and resistant to change.
Make no mistake. To change fundamental behaviors you have to change fundamental beliefs. Even if the goals of an initiative are highly technical, to transform an organization you first need to transform the people in it.
Driving Business Impact
Probably the most common mistake organizations make about digital transformations is to get lost in the technology. They see amazing things being done with big data, artificial intelligence or whatever and rush to adopt those capabilities. That rarely ends well, because the purpose of a business is not to adopt technology, but to create value.
The truth is that every successful innovation effort starts with identifying a meaningful problem. That’s why Libenson insisted on meeting with customers as well as internal stakeholders, because he wanted to focus on business outcomes from the start.
“All of the shifts we made were focused on opening up new markets and serving our customers better,” he stressed. “For example, our new Ascend platform has expanded our footprint with our existing customers by offering them the ability to access massive amounts of data in real time. That capability also helped us to win new business.”
So far, his efforts seemed to have paid off. Today, a little more than a year after it was launched, Experian’s API hub is processing more than 100 million transactions a month, all of which represents new business that wouldn’t have been possible with a traditional digital infrastructure.
In my upcoming book, Cascades, I analyze major transformations throughout history. In every context, whether the shift was political, social or technological, the period after the initial victory was often most dangerous. For example, many corporate turnarounds achieve some initial success, but then falter after a few quarters.
That’s why Libenson worked so hard to not only install technology, but to indoctrinate new values and beliefs, because shifting to the cloud was just the start. He hopes that the organizational and cultural shifts that he and the rest of the senior management team stressed throughout the process will help spur on greater change in the future.
“I think the most impactful technology that’s emerging right now is machine learning,” he says. “For example, we’ve started using machine learning to help manage our infrastructure, predict problems and suggest possible solutions. We have also begun using similar technologies for fraud detection, security and to improve decision results.”
“Having gone through this transformational process over the past three years and seeing concrete business results, we are much better positioned to adopt those technologies. We’ve made the changes in culture, our organizational structure and skills to be able to adopt new technologies quickly, completely and with better collaboration with our customers.”
The truth is that any transformation isn’t an endpoint, but a journey. To succeed, you have to be in it for the long haul.
Disclosure: In the past, Experian has paid for me to appear at its annual conference and to travel to speak to its executives.