Becoming a digital business is an objective that, taken in isolation, could have very little meaning or relevance to your organisation. No, the starting place when it comes to digitalisation is coming up with a business transformation strategy that outlines clearly what it is you want to achieve over, say, the next five years in terms of developing your personnel, your products and services and your customer base and, ultimately, your company. When you have defined such a transformation framework, and only then, this is the time to start looking at the (digital) technologies that will be the business enablers.
So, if someone at your company says: ‘We need to become a digital business’, ask them what they mean and then, if you’re feeling mischievous, ask them which of the following technologies will be needed to help achieve this goal: Big Data/Data Analytics, Edge Computing, Cloud (and Private, Public or Hybrid), Managed Services, 5G, Machine Learning, Virtual Reality, Hyperconvergence, Internet of Things, Digital Twins, Artificial Intelligence, Containers, Mesh, Adaptive Security…and that’s just for starters!
Too many organisations seem to be putting the cart before the horse when it comes to business and digital transformation – with management telling their data centre and IT personnel: ‘We need to be in the Cloud’ or ‘IoT is the future, make it happen’. Although there’s a fair chance that both these ideas and the technologies that underpin them will form a part of any business transformation strategy, they cannot be addressed in isolation, nor without knowing the objectives of such a strategy.
As millions, if not billions, of people are already discovering, the benefits of digital technologies are potentially huge. The secret is in knowing which ones are relevant to you as part of a business – which also means understanding which ones are relevant to your customers. An inexact science, maybe, but by means of research – talking to folks in your own organisation and talking to a cross-section of your customers – it’s not impossible to discover what digital tools will help to transform your business so that you can improve and/or optimise the service you provide to your customers.
One of my hobbies is collecting second-hand books covering a variety of subjects. Traditionally, the only way to purchase such books was to get in my car, drive to a second-hand bookshop, browse the shelves and hope that there was one or more volume there that was of interest to me, and at a price that I was prepared to pay. A handful of such bookshops might be local to me, and then I might bump into second-hand bookshops on holidays and visits to other locations across the UK. There was also a monthly magazine in which some second-hand bookdealers advertised their stock, and one could subscribe to various catalogues, and visit dedicated book fairs. However, at best, the whole collecting experience was fairly random.
Now, there are several second-hand portal websites that allow me to search for any book, in any format/condition, at a variety of prices, anywhere in the world. So, I am put in touch with a massive, global supply of books, and individual book suppliers are put in touch with a massive, global customer base. It’s transformed the industry (although a local second-hand book supplier I know quite well tells me he is happy not to put his stock on the internet, not wanting the hassle of photographing each book, uploading the descriptions and then dealing with the wrapping up and posting of books).
Furthermore, individual suppliers, armed with my contact details (and perhaps unaware of the impending GDPR requirements!), can tell me when my book is on the way, send me their latest lists etc.
This second-hand book example stands for almost any other product/service in the digital age. Customers can be accessed all over the planet – if that’s what you want, and you can give them as much customer service as you want. For example, my local tyre/exhaust company recently texted me to tell me that the MOT on one of the family cars is due shortly. However, as I no longer have that car, the message is wasted. Maybe if the message had been worded to offer an MOT for the car in question, or any others, I might have responded?
So, websites (ecommerce) and texting have a massive role to play in business transformation – no surprises here, as they’ve been business disruptors for a long time already.
However, some of the technologies listed earlier in the blog are just in their infancy when it comes to their suitability to be used in day to day business – IoT, virtual reality, artificial intelligence amongst them. Virtual reality – imagine the possibilities for showing potential customers a new car driving experience – much better than a ‘static’ video, or getting them to travel down to the showroom - maybe, or training folks to operate all manner of machines safely. IoT, obtaining million and millions of data points, running some kind of data analysis (thanks to Big Data) - to help improve anything from product design, to a better customer experience walking through a shop, or helping to optimise the productivity of your employees. Artificial intelligence and machine learning – robots are not new, but it seems as if they are about to go mainstream. It’s just a question of whether you think your customers would prefer to deal with a human being, or not (an extension of the already faceless customer call centres we have to endure for many parts aspects of our daily lives).
And here we come to the crunch - the reason why the business transformation process needs to be well understood before the digital investment. The banking industry is a great example of the variety of approaches that can be taken when it comes to the balance between customer service and digital ‘efficiency’ (ie cost savings). Some banks still have plenty of staff serving behind counters. Others now have one staff member on hand to help out and an array of self-service machines. Only if these machines cannot help us do we get to deal with a human being to process our transaction. And then there are online banks, telephone banks (but they still need some kind of physical presence for as long as people want to extract and deposit cash and cheques). Different approaches meet with different responses from potential customers. So long as you understand the likely response to any digital innovation in your business, then you’ll be prepared for any outfall – good and bad.
Short of time travel, the digital technologies exist to help your business do almost anything. And you can consume these technologies in a variety of ways – from owning, operating and maintaining them yourself, through all manner of hybrid approaches (owning some resources, hiring in others via colocation, the Cloud and Managed Services), to completely outsourcing your entire data centre(s) and IT functions.
I’m sure we can all think of the many digital experiences we encounter during both our working week and our weekend leisure time – some we like and enjoy, others leave us feeling frustrated and wishing that there was a helpful human touch somewhere in the transaction process.
Properly used, digital technologies can transform your business spectacularly for the better. However, ill-thought out strategies can only lead to digital disaster. Due diligence and risk assessment are everything.