“Don’t enter into a transformation project until you’re clear on your goals, values and purpose” – Interview With Suhail Mirza – Chairman at People PAYE and Non-Executive Director at RACS Group

Suhail Mirza is a former solicitor, author and business owner who sold his family healthcare company with over 200 staff in 2014. Suhail holds Non Executive Director roles for a number of different companies and specialises in helping ambitious SME’s in the healthcare, recruitment and support service sectors achieve rapid growth and market share.

We met with Suhail to learn about his views on digital transformation and why it’s so important that companies enter into DT projects with a clear vision in mind.

Question 1 – What would you say are the biggest myths surrounding Digital Transformation and in what circumstances may they be harmful?

“I think one of the long-standing myths around Digital Transformation is definitely the fact that it can be harmful or threatening to our current paradigm or business model. That’s been around for a very, very long time. It’s been something like seventy years since the philosopher, Martin Heidegger wrote his essay which was entitled, ‘The Question concerning Technology’ and in that, he highlighted- this is seventy years ago- that what we have to be clear about is our goals and aspirations and actually, technology and Digital Transformation, as we know it today, can bring us to new worlds, new truths. So, the myths that surround it are that it’s complicated, it’s threatening, it’s too expensive. They can be harmful because if you’re transforming in your business sector, you will fall behind because digital transformation and technology are evermore ubiquitous.”

Question 2 – What advice would you give to a business considering investing in Digital Transformation?

“I think one of the key things is to start with the end in mind. Many, many businesses have Mission statements and everything pinned on their wall, but I would strongly urge, in the roles that I’ve had advising businesses, that they are clear on their goals, their values, and the purpose of what they do, the service or product they provide. If you are clear about that, then Digital Transformation programs can be aligned to those goals. It’s not the other way around because in business today, whatever sector you’re in- healthcare and recruitment are the sectors I’ve spent a lot of time with- there are all sorts of technologies and digital solutions that come at you. They are not ones you should measure or change by, you should have them as tools to help you achieve your goals provided you are clear about them.”

Question 3 – What in your opinion are the most challenging aspects of implementing a Digital Transformation project?

“I think there are two. First and foremost is having the clarity of your goals and vision. If you’ve got that, and many businesses don’t, they just dive straight in to an implementation program with a broad idea that it will solve X problem, or Y problem, but how does it fit in strategically? If you’re not clear about that then it will be a huge challenge throughout the implementation. Secondly, often sometimes these decisions are made at the top level or CTO, CEO or CFO and that’s fabulous- but, not if you don’t have buy-in from the stakeholders, the people who will be actually implementing and using the systems. I’ve seen this in healthcare and I’ve seen it in recruitment, which is undergoing something called an inflection point, a profound change, where the people on the ground, the middle management and the actual employees are left a little bit in the dark about the Transformation and therefore don’t have an emotional as well as a logical buy-in. That will cause tremendous friction as you seek to roll it out.”

Question 4 – Why is it essential to choose the right digital transformation expert for your project and what tips can you offer for selecting the right partner?

“When we make that decision, I think the flippant response would be have you ever entered into a friendship or a business relationship or a romantic relationship on fairly shallow grounds? if you have, that’s fine, that may be all you wanted, but if you’ve been looking for something a little bit more lasting then every choice has severe consequences. A romantic one may be very expensive emotionally or financially, but it business, if you do not take this seriously and listen to advice, it can be profoundly costly. I’m aware of one very significant business within the recruitment sector that ended up spending millions of pounds because they did not make that decision correctly. What tips would I give? Let’s start with our own networks, we’re connected digitally with so many people, so many social media platforms, so I would start looking for clients or even competitors who’ve actually used an expert and what they would advise. Any industry you’re in has a supplier guide and trade journals that you can get references from, so that would be where I would start, getting a reference from people who’ve already used those experts and on that basis it should make it much easier to find the right one.”

Question 5 – Can you give any examples of projects which have been either successful or have failed and what are the distinguishing factors between those two?

“If I look at a couple of mainstream business sectors that I’ve been involved in and have been advisory and board level for decades. I’ll start with those and then I’ll give an outlier if I may. Within recruitment, people, business and technology are completely ubiquitous today. There’s been many examples now of where businesses have taken technology to take the logarithmic approach of recruitment out of the recruiter’s hands and provide digital and technical support for that. That hasn’t been threatening because the recruiter can use the value and knowledge he or she has to deliver value for the business. I’ve seen that being implemented very successfully by recruiters in technology, healthcare and technical staffing. On the flipside I’ve also seen recruiters who’ve decided that rather than getting expertise in, they will create their own digital transformation program, and in some cases that has led to catastrophic failure for them and cost, time, resource, brand impairment. Both of those things are the flipside of getting it right first time and being clear. In healthcare, I have seen within social care, looking after the elderly sector where, I’ve had a family business which we’ve had for twelve years; technology and digital platforms have been fabulous in helping deal with loneliness among the elderly, people who live on their own and digital platforms that allow real-time information and communication. That’s worked well. I’ve known that digital commissioning groups in London have used digital platforms and pathways that have alleviated the pressure on A and E and hospital readmission. That has been brilliant for the taxpayer and brilliant obviously for the patients. Failure on the healthcare side, I think the obvious one that most people will know is that digitalization and putting patient records in a electronic format became a huge project, well trailed in the newspapers was a disastrous failure. Probably, it wasn’t done in a segmented way and expectations were so high, it was trying to eat the elephant in one go rather than chunk by chunk. The slightly outlying area, I’m involved in a business that provides tools and platforms to help people who are facing a crisis of meaning or spirituality, I’ve written a book about that. That seems to be as far away from the digital world as you can imagine, however, since the publication of my book, I’ve been ratified to receive comments from my readers around the world who’ve said that the book was able to reach them through digital platforms and in some cases has transformed their lives when they were in a place of tremendous darkness. Whatever the book sales might be, just getting that type of feedback where a digital facilitation has been allowing me to reach people I never would have imagined otherwise is something to be celebrated.”

Question 6 – 6 – What would you say your biggest Digital Transformation success is and why?

“If I could select one of the many projects I’ve been involved in, in healthcare and recruitment, I would look at the recruitment space, one of the businesses ive been involved in, provides support services to contractors and freelance workers and recruitment businesses. As that sector has transformed and undergone its own profound change, we as a business had to provide a platform, a means of engaging with people who were sometimes transient, who were in and out of different roles and have a platform that would meet all their needs as well as minimise risk for the recruitment business which was fundamentally important as an onslaught of legislation in the U.K that affects recruitment businesses so they have to get the payments correct to these workers. That requires a huge amount of information in real time in order to protect both parties and that has now become an important basis for businesses that are leading the support services sector and helping recruiters to grow.”

Question 7 – In your opinion, what’s the most crucial phase of a Digital Transformation project and why?

“The most crucial effects are, actually there’s two, which is the beginning and the end, the alpha and the omega if you like. When we’re implementing a Digital Transformation project, it’s critical to have our values aligned, have a clear purposeful vision of what we are doing as a business and how the Digital transformation aligns to that. Have we got all stakeholders from cease week down to the people who are actually using the platform that we may be implementing aligned, clear timelines and expectations, all of that in place? If those things are clear and aligned, then we have a far greater chance for implementing and not overrunning in terms of time and cost. Secondly is when you give birth to the new project or platform or system that you will often have to run in parallel to the system that you are perhaps replacing. That will inevitably require people to be adjusted to the new system. There are inevitably given the nature of feedback and feed forward loops in technology, inevitably going to be properties in the new system or platform that you will not have been able to predict, positive and negative. We have to embrace that, it’s part of the process and be ready to take advantage of the one that provide added value. I think it’s been something like seventy years since one of the founding texts in modern, digital, computing fields started and that was ‘Psycho-cybernetics’ by Norbert Whelan. In that he argued that our reality isn’t really fundamentally about material energy, it’s about the transformation and transmission of information. He also added that we are not atomistic, we are connected to a larger system and field. So, if we take that lesson which is what gave rise to some of the Silicon Valley explosion, when you’re at the implementation phase and growing line phase, embrace the idea that you will now be connected and your system will be now connected to other systems and there may be profound benefits that you weren’t aware of that can help your business grow.”