“Digital as a dimension of everything”. Those were the words used to headline a ‘digital transformation’ strategy introduced to the Tate in 2013. This was quite far-seeing at the time, given that digital transformation has only just really come into general public consciousness in the last year or two. Beyond doubt the digital transformation bandwagon is overly hyped – well you know it is when you start to see ‘one size fits all’ training courses being advertised. But there is substance behind the gloss, and the key word is ‘strategy’.
The primary objective of the Tate’s strategy was to ‘normalise’ digital practices throughout the organisation, and through normalisation, to invoke a sustainable revolution in how it functions and what it accomplishes. The strategy speaks of building a digital culture, embedding digital practices and skills across every facet of the organisation, openness and transparency, digital governance, even operationalising digital disruption. This is not a strategy that states what technologies will be used, where and by whom – it is not an IT shopping list. It is focused on transforming the organisation, in which the implicit understanding of the idea of ‘transforming’ is bound to human performance and behaviour. When I say to people that I love tech, what I mean is, I love what people do with tech.
That’s the conundrum. When it comes to digital transformation, there are two very clear polarised perspectives. The first foregrounds technology as the driver of transformation, along with all of the advantages and benefits that it promises. This corner argues ‘if we had this or that, we could do so much more.’ There might even be truth in that, but its principle tool is an IT shopping list, and its target is new stuff, revamped old stuff, latest trends stuff, faster stuff. It is a strategy of stuff.
In the other corner, the sort of question that is asked is ‘what can we do to improve what we do, create new products and services, create new markets, change our value chains, create new skills and motivations, do things better, faster, provide more personalised responsive services to customers?’ Notice there is no mention of technology or digital. This is the corner that might even suggest starting with the strategic goal of ‘disrupting’ their own business. Before someone else does it.
You could argue that the term ‘digital transformation’ is, in this sense, entirely misleading. Not really. Digital technologies enable us to find, develop and evolve answers to these sorts of questions in ways not previously imagined. The key factor here is starting with strategy based on ‘what’ rather than ‘how’, because headlining technology renders the strategy obsolete before it’s read.
Here’s my case. According to a recent Forbes Insight report, Internet of Things technologies are the most important emerging technologies, trumping even Artificial Intelligence and Robotics. As recently as last year, it was AI (including Machine Learning et al if you understand AI as an over-arching category) and robotics that were the technologies flagged to be transforming whole industries. So, if your ‘transformation strategy’ is based around AI – or any specific technology – you’re yesterday’s news.
Incidentally, the Forbes report is arguably itself yesterday’s news, as Cisco published a report titled “Education and the Internet of Everything” as early as 2013, which represents the IoT as a subset of the IoE.
None-the-less, as the Forbes report points out, you need to start with strategy, not technology.
Having established that particular case, you might then counter that transformation strategy, digital or otherwise, is irrelevant to your business, that it only applies to large organisations.
Not so. The fact that large organisations are transforming their business and what they do and produce is precisely why all organisations, irrespective of size or purpose, should have a determined and critical eye on the transformation agenda. Whole industries are being transformed. There are dozens of imperatives fuelling this drive – disruptors, evolving customer expectations (I get particularly frustrated if there isn’t a chatbot available on a banking site, and I am forced to resort to waiting endless minutes on the end of a phone to speak to an ‘advisor’), competition, Amazon extending its business operations into virtually everything, things needed faster and cheaper, services needing to extend their reach to far more individuals than ever before, and so on. It’s a threat, but also an opportunity.
So, start with strategy. Digital is indeed a dimension of everything, but you need to define the ‘everything’ first. Start with what do we need / want to transform and why. Then work out how. And one final recommendation: such strategic deliberations are not the province of senior management, they require a rainbow team which could include customers and external advisors, as well as a cross-section of people from every aspect of the business. The bottom line is that successful transformation has collaboration at its heart, and people who develop an ability to look around corners.
Dr Lesley Crane is an independent consultant in digital learning and transformation, and a habitual disruptor.