Digital-transformation – it’s about (much) more than just digital

Digital-transformation?

We’ve been here before.

And if we’re not careful about it, as enterprise-architects and others, we risk making an even worse hash of it than we did on those previous times.

Oops…

But what is ‘digital transformation’? There are so many arguments on this that… Yeah, this one’s a bit difficult – we can’t do that same simple inversion that I did in the previous two posts in this series, ‘Enterprise-architecture – it’s about (much) more than IT‘ and ‘IT – it’s about (much) more than just ‘digital stuff’‘. What we can say is that it’s about some kind of transformation, probably in some kind of business-context, that involves something that some people call ‘digital’. Would that do for now?

Or, to put it another way, it’s just another instance of what happens when some kind of new technology opens up new opportunities to do some aspects of some story – usually a business-story – in a new and different way.

Which is a great idea. Usually. At the start, anyway.

But there are at least four ways to get it badly wrong:

  • We get over-excited about the technology – forgetting that a business-story is always, first and foremost, about people.
  • We try to make it benefit only some players, at the expense of others – forgetting that a business-story only works as a whole.
  • We fall for the delusion that the technology can do everything – which it can’t.
  • We start to believe that the technology will give us control at last, over everything – forgetting that, in the real world, ‘control’ can never be more than a comforting delusion.

And unfortunately, any or all of those are exactly what happen, all too often…

To illustrate, let’s take a simple model of the relationship between the organisation and the broader shared-enterprise – enterprise as ‘bold endeavour’ or shared-story – within which it operates:

As a quick summary:

  • Inside-in is the internal workings of the organisation – a ‘black-box’, to anyone outside
  • Inside-out is how the organisation presents itself and its offerings to the outside world
  • Outside-in is how the outside world sees the organisation, and makes its requests of the organisation
  • Outside-out is the overall enterprise-story, and all the stakeholders of that story, within the further context of the wider world

At the inside-in level, probably the classic early example of ‘digital transformation’ is business-process reengineering – the great ‘deus ex machina’ of the early to mid 1990s. It was a great idea: use new technology to take over the tedium of back-office work, and free people up to do more of the work that machines could not do. And there were ways to do it right. But for most, it went wrong, very quickly:

  • It was hugely over-hyped by IT-system vendors and the big-consultancies.
  • It was sold as an easy way to cut costs – particularly employee-costs.
  • It was hyped as being able to do all of the work, via predefined ‘executable business processes’.
  • It was sold as the way to control everything in the back-office – to force everything to conform to simple lists of ‘business-rules’.

Otherwise known, in the real world, as a guaranteed way to screw things up. The IT-vendors and big-consultancies made a killing, of course: but for almost everyone else, it was a hugely expensive mistake – and one from which some organisations never recovered. Not to mention all the careers and lives ruined in the orgy of ‘cost-cutting’ in which so many of those organisations had indulged…

The crucial point was that the focus should never have been on the technology alone – instead, much more on the actual tasks to be done, as a whole; and even more, on the people, and the overall people-story. And yet, in most cases, that last point was ignored or glossed over at the time, as Michael Hammer later ruefully reflected:

“I wasn’t smart enough about that. I was reflecting my engineering background and was insufficient appreciative of the human dimension. I’ve learned that’s critical.”

A lesson learned? – we would hope so…

Except that, a decade later, we saw exactly the same happening again, this time at the inside-out level, with the rise of web-technologies – another great ‘deus ex machina’. It was a great idea: use new technology, together with those business-process technologies, to help organisations open up a new kind of conversation with the wider world. And there were ways to do it right. But for most, it went wrong, very quickly:

  • It was hugely over-hyped by IT-system vendors and the big-consultancies.
  • It was sold as an easy way to sell new stuff to new markets – a new marketing-channel via which to trick customers to “buy products and crap cash”.
  • It was hyped as being able to do all of the work – “build it and they will come”.
  • It was sold as the way to control the market – to “possess eyeballs” and suchlike ideas.

Otherwise known, in the real world, as a guaranteed way to screw things up. The IT-vendors and big-consultancies made a killing, of course: but for almost everyone else, it was a hugely expensive mistake – and one from which some organisations never recovered. Not to mention gaining the ire of entire markets in the process…

The crucial point was that the focus should never have been on the technology alone – instead, much more on the actual tasks to be done, as a whole; and even more, on the people, and the overall people-story. The catch, perhaps, was that it was a different people-story than one that most large organisations were willing or able to understand, as Doc Searls and others explained in the Cluetrain Manifesto:

Most corporations … only know how to talk in the soothing, humorless monotone of the mission statement, marketing brochure, and your-call-is-important-to-us busy signal. Same old tone, same old lies. No wonder networked markets have no respect for companies unable or unwilling to speak as they do.

But learning to speak in a human voice is not some trick, nor will corporations convince us they are human with lip service about “listening to customers.” They will only sound human when they empower real human beings to speak on their behalf.

A lesson learned? – we would hope so…

Except that, a decade or so later, we’re seeing exactly the same happening again, this time at the outside-in level, with the rise of so-called digital-transformation – another great ‘deus ex machina’. It’s a great idea: use new technology, together with those web-technologies and business-process technologies, to enable citizens, customers and others to build their own conversations with the organisation. And there are ways to do it right, which include:

Yes, in each case, the technology is important, as an enabler: the new options probably wouldn’t exist without that new technology. In that sense, to quote Andrew McAfee, “it’s not not about the technology”.

Yet it’s also not about the technology itself – and that point is crucially important. Instead, so-called ‘digital transformation’ succeeds only when it’s mostly about people and their needs. We forget that fact at our peril…

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