The concept of “digital transformation” has been a rallying cry in IT executive circles for over ten years now. Born from a recognition that the cloud, the iPhone, the Web 2.0 movement, and the use of data was radically changing what technology was capable of creating – and the extraordinary financial rise of the FAANG vendors, which was proof if proof were needed that on the only scoreboard that counts (the big board) there was a new game being played – every business around the around has spent the last decade trying to inject these new tools, philosophies and business models into their operations.
Fast forward to mid-2019 though and the bloom of the transformation rose has faded. Despite huge sums of money, time, and attention being devoted to the effort, many businesses have struggled to materially improve their situation; customer interfaces are still underwhelming and frustrating, internal systems are still complex and inefficient – drowning in people and work arounds - and core technology infrastructures are still full of boxes and cables and software that shouldn’t be seen outside the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California.
An ennui has set in; the wise old skeptics, who struggled with the phrase “digital transformation” in the first place (“Ken Olsen would have something to say about that”), are quietly sitting in their Boca Rotan gated communities, feeling a smug satisfaction (“I told you that was a dumb idea”). The young cub analysts are getting memos from management saying “web traffic is plummeting on research notes mentioning Netflix and Blockbuster – find something else to say”. And the bag carrying saleswoman sitting back in 27B, is wondering how she’s going to close the deal that’s going to save the quarter – and her skin ...
As we approach the third decade of the 21st century there’s a feeling abroad that the excitement of the tech revolution – the journey from the Shockley Eight, to a kid from Seattle in Albuquerque, to the son of an Iranian immigrant in a garage, to a quiet Englishman in a non-descript office in Switzerland, to a Harvard undergraduate without a social network – is fading; that of course we all love our phones and being able to watch stuff on the train and being able to FaceTime with Granny back in the old country, but that the tech treadmill is getting too d-mn hard; too d-mn crazy ...
In our personal lives we’re worried about facial recognition software, and hacking, and data profiling, and robots stealing our jobs, and economies where the rich just seem to keep getting richer. And in our work lives we’re worried about facial recognition software, and hacking, and data profiling, and robots stealing our jobs, and economies where the rich just seem to keep getting richer. PLUS, deploying Kubernetes when we’ve just finished putting AWS in, figuring out if we should move our reconciliation system to Liber, if we should develop Dapps, how to hire 45 Python experts by next Wednesday, what we should do now that Terry’s retiring given that’s he the only one who knows how the month end system works and even he’s forgotten how to do most of it, what we should tell the new CEO who says we should have a 5G strategy (when we don’t really have a 4G strategy), what will happen if we disconnect that AS/400 under Maureen’s desk, whether we should move to full or partial virtualization, how to justify the cost of our data lake when we haven’t caught any fish, whether the 18% maintenance fee on the BSD license is really worth it (and what are we going to do if it isn’t – their rep is too scary to argue with ...).
Just too d-mn hard, too d-man crazy.
Jeez, even Jony Ive has quit.
We’ve tried to transform, and maybe some of us have got there – but most of us haven’t. And now you tell us there’s a whole new wave of technology coming that’s going to transform things again – transform things even more. “The greatest story of our time” you say ... bigger than electricity, man’s greatest invention, man’s final invention perhaps, something that is going to change everything about the future of our work. And something – that if we don’t get on board and get it right – is going to make us toast.
“Well, thanks for coming in today. Sandra will show you the way out”.
The ennui is understandable; predictable; justified. No one wants to be a Luddite (particularly working in tech), but the never-ending treadmill that is modern tech is making cynics of us all. 70 years of the third industrial revolution has wrought incredible change, disruption, progress – but incredible change, disruption, and progress have their downsides too; downsides which are visible every time we watch the news or scroll online or open an email from the chief operating officer.
And now the fourth industrial revolution looms ...
What has been lost in the story of digital transformation and which is now exposed as our inflated expectations head for the trough of disillusionment, is what we’re trying to transform into. What is the “there” in the “maybe some of us have got there – but most of us haven’t” above. Organizations – like people – understand that the only constant is change, and that business as usual is never a recipe for success. Many have well instituted Six Sigma and Kaizen programs in place as a consequence. But in the tsunami of change that is life in a western organization today what is unclear is what the mission objective is. What does good look like? What is best in class? What do we want to be when we grow up? How will we even know when we’ve won? When will all this stress stop?
Amidst the VUCA of day-to-day to-do lists and dashboards and review calls and status updates what is missing is a clear sense of what the hare we’re chasing actually is and how it runs so d-mn fast.
Of what a modern business is today – and how it operates.
So, it’s time to lay that out – again, or perhaps for the first time. An explanation – not a vision – of what a modern business is. Put in simple black and white terms that anyone can understand. That everyone can play a part in building. That can act as a rallying cry to inspire those in seats 1A and 27B.
Of course, in a global economy of $80 trillion dollars, with companies operating in thousands of markets with millions of niches, the idea of one platonically ideal modern business is improbable. But there are certain high-water marks observable right now that carry across all areas and all geographies – the user experience of HotelTonight, the buying experience of Allbirds, the one-click sales technology of Shopify, the presentation layer of Apple News, the voice interface of Google, the next best action agent of Waze, the banking experience of Revolut, the check in process at the Schiphol Airport Yotel ...
The job of the modern business leader is to mix these inspirational cross industry examples with ones specific to the particular race your organization is trying to win. To ask what does the employee onboarding process in a modern business look like and how does it operate? How is software written in a modern business? How does a modern business resolve a customer complaint without lowering its NPS? (Like our customer complaint department does). What does the lobby of a modern business look like? What does the CEO of a modern business wear? Where should a modern business be based? How much IT infrastructure does a modern business own?
The simple painful truth is that after a decade of digital transformation, which started with a clear sense that Messrs. Jobs, and Zuckerberg, and Bezos were right, many business leaders have given up asking these questions, given up trying to solve for UberX, decided that maybe business as usual is a safer way to the promised land of their 401k. That perhaps their customers and employees aren’t that unhappy with the problem resolution call (or c-appy bot), the painful time sheet submission process, the confusing non-intuitive process of changing an airline ticket in the middle of the night in a foreign country, the home equity line approval process that leaves the bank employee’s head spinning (let alone the customers’). After an eon of trying to be “fast and furious”, things have got squirrely and gnarly and now – with due apologies to Richard Ashcroft – the digital don’t work. Thank Yahweh - many are secretly thinking – we can just go back to being “slow and mildly cheesed off”.
But the further, even more simple and painful truth is that after a decade of digital transformation, in which the power of the digital transformation message has waned and has left some asking “what’s beyond digital? What’s next?”, the actual answer is “digital”.
Much more digital. Decades more digital.
Digital for the rest of your working life – be you 55 or 25.
Digital aimed at building and operating a modern business.
The modern business that you probably don’t work in today. That you know is not long for this world, Lordy, Lordy.
That is being crawled over by a 32-year-old finance hot-shot from Wharton, eager to perform his next corporate colonoscopy.
That is an ok place to work but is never going to be on the cover of a magazine.
Sure, we can get bored and cynical and snarky about the concept of digital transformation and wish it would just leave us the h-ll alone. But the truth is that the manifest destiny of machines is just that – manifest. Unrelenting, unforgiving, and unstoppable. And that it is only interested in those who will come on the journey – who want to come on the journey.
The modern business of today, full of those machines, is still – for 90% of organizations in the Fortune 500 – a work in progress. In another decade, after modern businesses have stretched their competitive lead through being modern businesses, a non-modern business will be no more than an antique – a nice looking old MG that you take out for a spin on a Sunday morning, not a modern car capable of winning a modern race.
Digital transformation is not even half done. The first industrial revolution lasted 90 years; the second, a hundred. Some may think – 70 years into the third – that this one (the information revolution) should be wrapping up sometime soon. But the reality is there’s at least another two generations of workers whose work ahead will be making their businesses modern businesses – completing the current revolution and transitioning into the next. Turing’s Cathedral is far from finished and those who turn away now will be the proverbial builders of Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia – halfhearted believers who weren’t around to enjoy the glory of their achievement. And certainly not candidates to ever get their face on a bank note.
Building a modern business is the work you should be focused on today and tomorrow - anything else is a waste of time in July 2019. Don’t call it digital transformation anymore if that term rubs the wrong way. Call it being relevant. Call it being fit for the future.
But recognize that most businesses are not modern businesses and that soon there will be no choice than to be one.