How can legacy organisations be both digital and corporate: Interview with Gary O’Brien

Legacy organizations can modernise by adopting digital technologies while maintaining their traditional corporate governance. Incorporating digital solutions like cloud services and data analytics allows these firms to stay competitive without losing their corporate identity. By balancing innovation with established protocols, legacy organizations can be both digital-forward and corporate in nature. How can legacy organisations be both digital and corporate? Interview with Gary O’Brien, Director of Digital Transformation at Thoughtworks.

Tell us more about Thoughtworks. What is your elevator pitch?

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Thoughtworks is a global technology consultancy that integrates strategy, design and engineering to drive digital innovation. We are over 11,500 Thoughtworkers strong across 51 offices in 18 countries. For 30 years, we’ve delivered extraordinary impact together with our clients by helping them solve complex business problems with technology as the differentiator.

We have 3 main business offerings:

  • Strategy: We work on pragmatic strategies for organisational change that increase agility, resilience and ability to compete.
  • Design: We align product thinking with platform expertise and digital execution to deliver exceptional customer experiences powered by integrated technology and design.
  • Engineering: We modernise business operations, platforms, development and delivery practices to improve customer experience and deliver business value faster.

What is your background and what is the story behind the company?

I’m passionate about helping companies maximise their value to customers and their positive impact on society. I joined Thoughtworks as a Consultant in 2010 and have been with the company for almost 13 years. Because their mission aligns with that passion. Before that, I was at Telstra and Sun Microsystems.

I greatly enjoy working with executive teams to redesign their operating models. So they can overcome dysfunctional ways of working, identify potential cost savings, focus on high-value investments, and respond quickly to new challenges and opportunities.

In 2019 I co-wrote The Digital Transformation Game Plan with Guo Xiao and Mike Mason, about our learnings on how to drive business value from digital transformation.

It was wonderful to celebrate Thughtworks’ 30th anniversary recently, having been founded  in Chicago in 1993.  At that time, information technology was regarded as a cost center — and one with an appalling track record of delivery and wastage.

Thoughtworks aspired to change this through experimenting and learning to drive continuous improvement and the pursuit of excellence in the craft of software development. Today we help our clients to create their own path to digital fluency and to build organisational resilience to navigate the future.

How can organisations be both digital and corporate?

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Across all industries, organisations are facing relentless customer, market, geopolitical, and technology change. In response, most are dedicating a huge amount of time and resources to discrete digital transformation initiatives. But few are seeing the results and ROI they really want.

Many organisations are finding that their traditional operating models are no longer fit for purpose. As a result, they’re hampered in their efforts to survive and thrive in this digital era. Their legacy models prioritise stability and control over agility and innovation. They inhibit change, rather than enable it.

This is especially the case in the banking industry which has one of the highest IT spending of all industries. And yet still struggles to better serve its digitally savvy customers and incorporate new technology into existing systems.

For me, finding the balance between ‘protecting the system’ and embracing digital innovation is more challenging than it seems. In fact, having a successful IT operation in today’s ever-changing environment requires an overhaul of traditional approaches which might be impossible. However, here’s some tips which I think will be helpful:

Make customer outcomes the starting point for any initiative

Too many companies set objectives from an inside perspective, such as increase revenue or reduce costs. But when you prioritise the company over the customer, what you measure and value fails to align with what should be your ultimate goal – making things better for customers.

For example, a bank might set an internal outcome of ‘selling more home loans’. They’ll set some KPIs around mortgage growth, and perhaps they might build an MVP for some sort of digital mortgage platform.

But what if they optimised their model to what customers are looking for instead? No one really wants a mortgage – but they do want a place to call home. Instead of asking themselves how they can sell more mortgages, they should be asking how they can help more people buy their home.

This triggers an immediate shift in empathy. The team might start thinking more about home affordability. By simplifying the search, purchase and approval experience and what it takes to move. The things they measure, the skills they need on the team and the resulting MVP will all be completely different.

Prioritise collaboration and support people to do what they do best

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Legacy organisations are driven by budgets and traditional structures, with teams optimised for their skill sets along reporting lines. Programs of work are broken up into functionally-aligned pieces, which are sent to functional teams for completion.

In this environment, siloed teams lose sight of the work’s ‘why’, because they lack that shared context. What more, we usually see work designed to fit the existing skill sets of each team – not because it’s the right work to achieve the desired outcome.

The system built around the employees, not the employees themselves, is the problem. A backlog of work for a specific application or a defined skillset like CX, bears no resemblance to a backlog of work for helping people find their dream home. There will be significant differences between the things you measure, the skills you need, and the work you create.

I encourage legacy organisations to give their people the opportunity to do what they do best, instead of forcing them to fit into a structure that limits their work and capability. When they are focused on delivering customer-first outcomes and know how they will measure success – they can use their best talents to achieve the outcome. What’s more, they’ll know when to pivot, when to accelerate and when to slow down.

This is especially important when a legacy company takes over a tech startup – they have to create room for the startup’s team to grow instead of forcing them to fit into the current structure.

Any innovation in fintech more broadly that you are really excited about?

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The convergence of open banking, faster payments, embedded finance and AI provide the opportunity for a scaled and personalised approach to financial advice and broader consumer access to specialised financial services.

The current economic conditions have driven Fintechs to reconsider their direct customer acquisition strategy, and banks are more open to collaborate with Fintechs to augment rather than try to build their own specialist capabilities.

This is exciting as these conditions drive a greater focus on where Fintechs and more traditional financial services organisations can focus to best serve customers.

Any plans for the future or product roadmap you want people to know about?

We’ve all seen the headline data showing high failure rates for transformation initiatives. But our research and daily experience with clients suggests that organisations aren’t just failing to see their desired ROI from episodic, narrow transformation, they’re becoming acutely fatigued by it.

It’s time for a new approach. One that aligns better with the continuous change organizations face today. Today, ongoing evolution optimizes the most successful and valuable companies in the world. It is enabling them to not only keep up with the constant change happening around them, but also actively turn it to their advantage.

At Thoughtworks, we’re helping our clients to look inwards and challenge their core capabilities, structures, business models, and culture holistically – to break free from the inertia of traditional approaches to digital transformation — and ensure their long-term survival and success.