The new everything

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“Digital” has replaced “Cloud” as the hot synonym for “Everything.”

No matter what a company plans to do and how it plans to do it, it’s now officially Digital.

Not that I’m a Digital skeptic. I’d just like, when we talk about “Digital,” to be confident we’re talking about the same thing.

Google a bit and you’ll find quite a few different accounts of why Digital is so important, along with several definitions, some of which, reprehensibly, make it a noun.

My favorite: Digital enables new business models. Examples include Uber, AirBNB, and Zipcar, all of whose “new” business models amount to being brokers — companies that bring buyers and sellers together in exchange for a cut of the action.

It’s a very new business model, certainly no older than the Phoenicians.

For whatever it’s worth (probably what you pay to receive KJR) here’s my take on why business leaders not only can’t ignore matters Digital, but have to embrace the subject. Truly Digital companies:

  • Observe: Constantly scan the technology landscape for the new and interesting.
  • Orient: Spend serious time and energy, at the executive level supported by staff analysis and modeling, investigating whether and how each new technology might turn into an opportunity if their company gets there first, or might turn into a threat if a competitor gets there first.
  • Decide: Far too many business executives and managers, and therefore whole businesses run away from the decisions that matter most as if they were rabid weasels (the decisions, that is, not the executives, managers and businesses). Digital businesses have to become adept at making fast, well-informed decisions.

And remember, it isn’t a decision unless it commits or denies the time, staff and budget needed to effectively …

  • Act: It isn’t enough to make the right decision and then either flail away at it or not actually do anything to make it real. Successful Digital businesses must execute their decisions, and with high levels of competence.

It’s OODA again. Digital businesses are built on OODA loops focused on the potential impact of new technologies. Not static list of specific technologies. New and interesting technologies as they arise and mature.

For Digital businesses the Orient stage has outsized significance, because many of us humans have a strong tendency to reject the new as either wrong or no different from the same old same old.

Digital businesses can no more afford to fall into that trap than the opposite extreme — dying from the shiny ball syndrome of chasing the next huge thing before giving the current huge thing a chance to succeed.

So Digital business have to establish methods, and not just methods but a supporting enterprise-wide culture, that let them go beyond the lip service of “that’s what we’ve been doing all along” to accurately recognize what really are familiar old concepts hiding behind shiny new buzz-phrases and what are truly new and important possibilities.

And none of this will matter if the company’s IT organization hasn’t figured out just how different the Digital world is from the standard collection of “best practices” followed by old-school industrial-age IT.

Recent history — how IT responded to two past transformational technologies, the personal computer, and the world wide web — illustrates the challenge. In both cases, IT ignored them completely until long after they’d become entrenched elsewhere in the business.

Why was that? Boil everything down and it came to this: When they first appeared, and for several years afterward, neither the PC nor the world wide web fit what IT did. They were out-of-scope, and outside IT’s current areas of expertise. CIOs didn’t know what to do with or about them, so it was safer and easier to declare them Someone Else’s Problem.

In the Digital era this attitude just won’t cut it because new technologies that can have an impact on your business are emerging faster than ever. Digital businesses need IT that provides technology leadership to the business, at all levels of the business, and at all levels of IT.

Technology leadership means more than just (for example) the CIO explaining to the other members of the executive suite how the Internet of Things represents a threat to the company’s current product line.

It means the IT organization knows how to recognize, research, pilot, and incubate new technologies. And, for those that succeed, how to integrate them into both the company’s technical architecture and IT’s organizational architecture.

All levels of the business and IT means the conversations between a help desk analyst and a workgroup manager about collaboration technologies are just as Digital as the CIO’s executive-suite conversations about the Internet of Things.

And are just as important.

Comments (1)

  • It sounds like “Digital” is just more of the same – convincing companies that they need to switch their practices and thinking from their old “analog”(?) methods to incorporate computers, the Internet, and mobile devices. It’s the last in particular (why is the term “Digital”, which has been around since the dawn of computing, instead of “mobile”? I don’t know). Uber’s model has been so successful because it recognizes that not only are the customers mobile, using mobile devices, but so are the suppliers. Previously, a customer could easily call a taxi company, or even a taxi brokerage, from mobile phone; but it took Uber to realize that the “taxi” they wanted could just as easily be an independent contractor with a car and a mobile phone/GPS/internet.

    I was working in IS at the creation of the world wide web. I was even told to reserve our company’s domain name. But beyond that, the web wasn’t a tool for IT. IT was for marketing, sales – the outward-focused business side of things. They needed to tell us what they wanted us to do with it. Of course it would have helped if we could tell them what the web could do for them, but I still didn’t know myself – it took higher-level, imaginative thinkers.

    In IS/IT, we were focused on managing and processing the vast quantities of data we had, delivering it to the people who needed it in the most efficient manner. We were using dial-up modems to connect to our numerous sites, until we jumped onto something faster and more secure as soon as it was available. We took initiative to upgrade hardware, software, practices, etc. to improve whatever it was we were already doing, but we left modifying the business model to the business people.

    At my current organization, IT personnel are more closely embedded with the “business” people, so it’s easier for IT and the other departments to determine how best to adopt any new technologies that come along.

    In my position, I work closely with several outside organizations. We determined over a decade ago that all of us would benefit by migrating to data systems that communicated more easily with each other. Unfortunately, the opposite has happened – the other agencies have migrated off a locally-grown data system (dating from the 80’s or earlier) to each have their own specialized system, none of which talk to each other.

    PS: “no older than the Phoenicians” – I think you meant, “no younger”, because I’m sure middlemen, traders, and brokers existed long before the Phoenicians. The cuneiform tablets found at Elba date from about the third millennium BCE, and indicate a large amount of trade. And that’s what we have physical evidence for – no doubt humans everywhere engaged in these practices, whether or not they left traces of it to last 5000+ years. Marriage brokers, for example, matchmakers. The second or third oldest profession, maybe? 🙂

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