Many years back, I remember attending a conference on innovation, where someone asked Paul Flaherty, the original founder of Altavista - the famed search engine of the yesteryears.
“Now that a lot has already been invented, would the pace of innovation slow down?”
Paul promptly replied “quite to the contrary, it will only accelerate.” he went on to explain that "with each new innovation, mankind will get a new lever to innovate with, and hence the design space, or the opportunity to innovate will exponentially grow"
This exchange left a lasting impression on me and I have used this viewpoint to help clients find newer ways to combine innovations to create greater impact.
Some of the recent advances in applied technology have been in areas such as NoSQL, IoT, Machine Learning, Social Media, Cloud, Mobility, Augmented Reality, Voice Activation, Robotics Process Automation, NLP, Blockchain, UX engineering, and a few others.
Now, while you could do great things in any particular area. For example, you could build a great application on the cloud or leverage IoT or build a smart Mobile app, however, you can exponentially grow the impact of your innovation by combining more than one of these innovations. As an example, in recent years, Accion has partnered with a Bay Area firm to combine the advances in wearable electronics, IoT, neuroscience, mobility, and cloud to build a very successful mind-stimulation platform that helps people free themselves from anxiety and stress. Who would have thought 10 years ago that you could trick your brain to relax? While the example above is of a high-tech firm in the Bay Area, we think organizations of all sizes and from different industries can benefit from this combinatorial power of innovation.
This is what I call “Digital Transformation”. In my view,
“Digital Transformation is the process of reimagining a business or an ecosystem of businesses through combining leading and emerging technologies with the eventual end goal of growing the business, making a social impact and increasing stakeholder value, engagement and happiness”.
Examples Of Digital Transformation
Below are some additional examples of digital transformations that Accion has been involved with:
- An entertainment technology company built a personalized recommendation engine built using wristbands (wearables), mobility, ML/AI, and SaaS.
- A technology company re-engineered their safety and compliance product by combining field sensors (IoT), ML/AI, and analytics.
- Another tech company got its employees more involved by using social media integration, voice-activation, natural language processing (NLP), machine learning (AI), and mobile devices.
- Using conversational UI, social media integration, RPA, mobility, and machine learning, an HR platform company re-engineered the whole employee engagement platform.
- A retail technology firm built a “personalized shopper” by combining mobility, location-aware, voice-activation, NLP, and ML.
Must-Haves Of Digital Transformation
Not all emerging technology projects may be classified as digital transformation. In my opinion, for a project to be classified as digital transformational, the following conditions must be met:
- Digital transformation should be combinatorial. This means, that projects that leverage only one innovation such as migration to cloud, or migrating a web app to the mobile app are NOT digital transformation.
- Digital transformation must expand your user base not only in terms of volume but also in terms of variety and engagement. Thus, projects that simply make the same functions available to a larger number of users (e.g. localization to new languages/locales, distribution of software via app stores, etc.) are not Digital Transformation.
- Digital transformation should have a measurable impact on the organization or even better, the entire business ecosystem. This means, that projects that have incremental gains or are primarily cost-saving in nature, may not be categorized as transformational.
- Digital transformation should promote self-service. Rather than users “waiting” for information, they should be allowed to interact with the system for information. Think about how at Sam’s Club you can “scan” goods yourself using a mobile phone and at airports you can “order” food from your seat without a “waiter” ever speaking to you.
- Digital transformations should affect an organization structure or the chart. We think this is a very important attribute of digital transformation. That means, it should create new organizational roles and sometimes eliminate old ones. For example, by letting users enter a claim via a phone, we may eliminate the role of a claim clerk or when we leverage ML/AI to search for fraud in a healthcare claims setting, we may eliminate the role of the fraud clerk.
- Digital transformation should involve ML/AI and preferably IoT. We think these two technologies can exponentially change how businesses interact with their stakeholders. I remember hearing an expert saying “projects that do not leverage IoT are NOT transformational”. I would say there is some truth to that.
Key Skills Needed For Digital Transformation
Most people may think that the key skill needed to take on a transformational project is to learn about new and emerging technologies. However, digital transformation projects require more than just skills in hot new technologies.
Thus, before embarking on a digital transformation project, an organization should develop skills in the following areas:
Let us dig deeper into each of these areas:
This one is obvious. We need to procure, partner or train our resources in leading and emerging technologies. However, besides learning the newest and hottest technologies, this requires “unlearning” some of the technologies or techniques of the past. For example, to really leverage the power of NoSQL data lakes, one has to unlearn traditional approaches to building RDBMS-based multidimensional data warehouses. To learn the power of ML/AI, one has to unlearn the traditional rule-based design.
Since they affect users (employees, suppliers, partners) in fundamentally different ways, digital transformation projects add new demands to an organization’s operations. This includes program management, release engineering, data governance, help-desk support, and many more. New advances in software engineering such as Agile methodology, test-driven development, CI/CD (continuous integration and continuous delivery), microservices-based development, and cloud-hosting enable organizations to build Agile operations.
In my view, product management is more than mere business analysis. Product management is the process of envisioning new products rather than gathering user requirements. I am reminded of Steve Job's quote that “had we interviewed users, Apple would not have created ipad”. Organizations should train their technical architects and/or their business analysts into what I call “product architects.”
In my view, a product architect combines his knowledge of the market, the organization, and its ecosystem (suppliers, competitors, partners) and emerging technologies to find new and unique, and transformative use-cases and eventually translate them into business requirements and technical specifications.
Now last, but not least is capability in UX Engineering. I always wondered why most people enjoy using Facebook, Twitter, and Whatsapp on a Sunday night but hate their IT systems once they walk into their offices on Monday morning. After all, if users find it hard to use the systems, they won’t use them, particularly when you are trying to alter the usage in fundamentally newer ways. Thus, I feel strong UX capability is an integral component of a successful digital transformation initiative.
Finally, What About The Culture?
In my opinion, an organization is as creative and transformative as its leaders. I have seen many companies embarking on what they call “digital transformation” projects, while in reality, they are merely expensive POCs of emerging technologies.
I think that for an organization to truly embark on and be successful in such a journey, it should promote grassroots communication and creativity, should welcome dissent and contrarian points-of-views, strive to remove bureaucracy and politics, remove the stigma of failure and implement speedy decision-making. Only then true Transformation can be realized.
Please feel free to reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org to know how Accion’s experience of over 50+ digital transformation projects can help in your own initiative.