I think we have digitized AND transformed

First, you should read this excellent blog post from my pal Sameer Patel. It definitely got me thinking (which is a surprise given I am thoroughly enjoying a month off work between two jobs ), and I thought I can add a couple of things to this discussion. It also gives me a chance to put my wife’s laptop to test – I spent a whole day improving its performance yesterday 🙂

This is the central theme of Sameer’s post

The crux of my assertion is that for the last 40+ years we have been busy digitizing – an important first step. But it would be a stretch to day that we have digitally transformed, save for a few pockets.

I am rarely positive about the world of enterprise software. Yet, I think it is not too much of a stretch to think we have indeed transformed digitally – actually quite significantly. Are we there yet ? No – and it will be still a No if we ask this question in fifty years. Transformation is not absolute – it is about change between two states, or maybe the rate of change between two states.

So I am going to extend Sameer’s assertion and say something like “We have been busy digitizing for last 40+ years, and also transforming along the way in many pockets. This will be the way life is going to be for next 40+ years and we will  worry about silos pretty much for ever”.

In my school days, occasionally I had the opportunity to sit in a corner of my dad’s office and watch the fascinating corporate world stuff. He would dictate letters to his assistant who would take that down in short hand, type up a draft and have dad review it. It took a few back and forth attempts before the letter , with the real carbon copies, made its way to the dispatch clerk who would then sort them and send them on the way to various corners of the world. When dad got promoted , he had two assistants and both pretty much worked all the time to handle his business correspondence. He could have had two more assistants but decided that it won’t scale given there was only one of him . That was the case of his fellow senior executives too.

I saw two transformations there – one in my school days, and one in my college days. First one was the electronic typewriter – which increased the productivity of communication to the extent that dad briefly considered having three assistants to maximize output. The company expanded significantly in that time frame – in no small part because the executives could deal with more customers and vendors. The second round was the introduction of computers into the office. The growth in that period was explosive to say the least, especially with the introduction of email few years later. Email took the company to heights no one imagined. My dad and many colleagues who had two assistants moved to a one assistant model – with some people even sharing assistants. The extra capacity was moved to other parts of the company that needed additional hands.

That company at some point under invested in digitization and that was one of the reasons it eventually went out of business . There were articles published in management and technical journals of those days on both the early investment in digitization and the later under investment before the company went under under.

That was truly transformational for the times it happened. By today’s terms – people will die of shock if they hear about a company without email. Email is so uncool now – and it was transformational not that long ago. Simple workflows via email improved the efficiency of business processes by orders of magnitude back in the day. Today, a rigid one directional email workflow is looked down with disdain.

I can’t help bringing up my favorite topic – ERP !

ERP never lived up to its promise. I will be the first to admit that, despite making a living off that business for most of my career . But even its worst critics agree that several companies underwent serious transformation , along with plenty of pain and bruises and battle scars. But now the rate of change is not enough to get attention – and hence all the crying out loud that ERP sucks.

Such is the nature of transformation – no one cares about past transformation. You have to constantly evolve and adapt to keep up and hopefully thrive. But that is not the same as saying business has only digitized but not transformed. At various points in time, the rate of change might be high or low – when that tends to zero, business dies.

Sameer goes on to say

At the very least, Digital Transformation will expect that we are able to contextually expose repeatable patterns that:

1. Embrace a true working model that’s powered by real time access to business insights.

2. To the network of experts that dynamically assemble around the problem at hand.

3. The “un-silofication” of todays fragmented work experience that expects me to hop from system to system to get my work done.

4. And the flexibility to have people and data access conform to how I work. It’s a topic I’ve spent a lot of time.

I have a few thoughts on these bullets as well

Repeatable patterns and context : I am not sure if repeatable patterns make a magic bullet – repeatability makes things good candidates to automate/digitize. But it also assumes that world is static – which by now we know is not a safe assumption to make. Yet, it is a compromise we have to make to get things done. Just that we should do so with eyes open that repeatability is temporary and comes with the risk of rework at some arbitrary point in future. However – repeatability aside, I do agree wholeheartedly with the contextually part. Context has not been a big deal in past because it was in the user’s head and with the comparatively lower amount and quantity of data to be processed – that probably was ok. It is not OK now – and context is not negotiable in process design any more.

Real time access to business insights : My beef is only with the “real time” part. My favorite example is knowing right now that I can make a killing by moving inventory from Texas to California for sales this weekend, but not having trucks ready to move the inventory till next week. Not all business processes need real time information. In fact several don’t even need precise information to aid a decision. Humans make decisions on approximations – and trust context more than precision. However, IT systems historically have been built on the concept of precision and now tend to be built on real time. I prefer the term “right time” over real time.

Dynamically assembled network of experts : AMEN ! this is the root cause of most evil in IT systems in today’s organizations . Sameer and team are doing excellent work on making this happen and I am a huge fan and cheer leader.

un-silofication : It is an elusive goal to say the least. There will always be silos and we need to make peace with it. History of IT is littered with lessons like Mainframes did not die , ERP did not consolidate all systems and so on. World fluctuates between fascination for best of breed and suite – which means silos will only increase, not decrease. We can solve some of this problem via collaboration and BI and things of that nature. But I don’t think we will get far enough ever. IT systems will have to play catchup. I don’t like it – but realistically I don’t see a real change coming to save us .

People and data access conform to how I work : Again a big AMEN ! This is totally a worthwhile goal to pursue – although very difficult to get to. Just like un-silofication thing – I don’t envision an all encompassing solution, but this approach of conforming the world around to how a user works might happen in enough pockets to make it worthwhile.

That is it – I am going back to vacation mode !


One thought on “I think we have digitized AND transformed

  1. Solid post and thanks for the kind words. I can see why you like the things you like and not-so-much for the other stuff. -)

    I knew that both non-repeatability and silo-fication would be controversial. When we apply a systems-view of the web, it’s hard to imagine a world that can overcome these. But I’m convinced that a lot of it can be overcome when you model around how users work every day and understand 20% of what they need 80% of the time. I’m absolutely convinced that we can do a lot better than what we have today. And you know me – I’m not one to get mesmerized by the shiny.

    As I said, this is an ongoing task and discussion – there will be lots to discuss as we start to untangle the gnarly world of enterprise software. And so, WRT: “I am rarely positive about the world of enterprise software. ” – Come on, man. The world of enterprise software needs more optimism -)

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