I ask an open-ended question around, say, social or mobile or cloud, or maybe big data analytics, and I don't get the response I was expecting.
It's obvious I've committed some sort of faux pas. There's a stiffening, a deer-in-the-headlights sort of look, followed by a quick referral to "someone in IT who's working on it".
An awkward pause usually follows.
I bet if I asked a more familiar question around competition, or business strategy, or budgets or people or globalization -- I'd probably get a knowledgeable and engaged response.
I used to think it was my fault for bringing up the topic. Not anymore.
Welcome To The World Of Digital Business Models
It doesn't take a NASA scientist or a futurist to observe that we're now living in a digital world. It's not exactly a new thought.
But the inevitable sequitur can be challenging: now that this has happened, what do we do about it?
More specifically: how do we -- as business leaders -- translate our value proposition and competitive advantage into this new digital realm? No shortage of examples of industries that didn't change fast enough ...
Most of the best thinking I've found on this topic comes from Dr. Peter Weill at MIT. He argues persuasively that the next important task for business leaders is to get busy constructing their digital business models -- lest they fall prey to competitors who do.
At a high level, he breaks the stack into three layers: experience, content and platform. He then goes on to do a great job at comparing companies who are aggressively investing in digital business models, and those that aren't. Personally, I've latched on to his ideas, and have done what I can to extend them further into more familiar realms.
Aspects Of A Digital Business Platform
So, if you had a blank piece of paper, and you were doodling around on the sorts of things you'd want in your yet-to-be-constructed digital business platform, what sorts of things would you be looking for? A quick tour might be insightful.
Let's start with the glaringly obvious -- mobility.
It's hard to imagine any digital business model that doesn't include at least some aspect of mobile. Our economy is based on knowledgeable workers and consumers. They get their information from the internet. They move around in the physical world. Hence they prefer to consume it on a mobile device.
Preferably using native applications as opposed to a legacy web sites that look like stink on their iPad.
Where IT can get caught in the trap is they tend to think in terms of projects vs. platforms. When considering mobile, what you should be thinking of is an extended set of capabilities that allows any part of the business to define, create and push a new, native mobile application to their chosed audience: employees, partners, customers and prospects.
Like all platform capabilities, it's something you'll be using over and over again in ways you might not be able to possibly imagine (or justify!) at present.
I, as business user, need an enterprise mobility platform where I can quickly create new user experiences as a routine matter. Not once, but dozens and dozens of times. Sort of how I think about standing up a web page today :)
Back to digital business platforms (and strategies), mobile is now the preferred consumption option. It's not a fad. So I'd recommend you invest at getting good at it, just like you hopefully did with your web site and your call center.
Also in the "glaringly obvious" category -- social. To this day, I think most business leaders still don't fully understand the breathtaking power of social. Here's a simple tip: just watch what anyone under 25 can do with this stuff. It's hard not to come away amazed.
Back to the notion of a digital business model, social creates both experience and content. Not only must their be all sorts of ways where people can interact informally (whether it be on your platform or elsewhere), there needs to be the plumbing and mechanisms to integrate business process, e.g. customer service or market research. It's hard for me to image any sort of modern digital business platform that doesn't have a robust set of social capabilities.
Again, IT can easily fall into the project-vs-platform trap. Most of the things you'll want to do with social, you probably haven't even thought of yet -- again, making it hard to justify using traditional justification approaches. I speak from personal experience on this topic.
In the not-so-obvious category, we've got the relatively new topic of big data analytics. It is quickly becoming one of the "must have" components of just about any digital business strategy that I've come across so far.
Not only do digital business platform generate a mountain of potentially useful data, there's all that external data out there just waiting to be harnessed in pursuit of insight.
If you've ever spent time inside an organization that was "born digital", e.g some of the newer web-based companies, they're remarkably proficient at being analytically adept. Something you see much less often in businesses that were born in the physical world, and still trying to figure out the digital one.
In the more obscure category, we've got agile apps -- the ability to rapidly conceptualize a new business process that often spans multiple functional silos, and quickly turn it into a functional prototype. Behind that is a whole discussion around tools, methodologies, APIs, consuming and exposing services and everything else.
Turning that functional prototype into a robust, scalable enterprise app is a separate challenge, to be sure, but the companies that impress the heck out of me can pull off a proof-of-concept in a matter of weeks vs. months or years. They're just moving so much faster than everyone else.
Once again, it's a platform capability -- you're investing in creating the capabilities independent of the latest project-du-jour.
Mobility, social, analytics, agile apps -- if those are the "payloads" of your envisioned digital business platform, what can we say about the environment in which it runs?
Two familiar ideas here: cloud and trust.
Cloud (or, more accurately, IT as a service) is restructuring the traditional enterprise IT model so that IT services become very easy to consume by the folks who want them. Whether those services are sourced internally, externally or some combination tends to be more of an implementation detail vs. an end in itself.
Enterprise IT positions itself as the internal IT service provider of choice, and invests in producing and driving consumption of IT services that people want.
The notion of trust is an important one. If we're doing business in a digital world, we'll need the same sort of trust mechanisms we've grown to depend on in other domains. Collectively, we're pretty good at protecting our financial assets, our physical assets, our people assets, our brand assets and so on -- we'll need the same sort of approach to protecting our collective digital assets.
To be clear, that's not just IT security -- although that's certainly an important foundational component. Think more broadly: information and platform availability, information integrity and governance, managing your digital brand, and so on.
The Potential Role Of IT Leaders
It should come as no surprise that many IT leaders I meet are oh-so-very-close to all of these issues, and more. They tend to understand -- perhaps better than anyone -- how the world is changing around them, and what must be done to retain and extend competitive advantage.
But, at the same time, they're inevitably mired into the treadmill of traditional IT: projects, budgets, schedules, vendors and all of that.
There's not a lot of time in their days to become advocates around newer ways of doing business.
A few that I've met have taken the podium, so to speak, and have started to advocate for a fundamental shift in how the organization conceptualizes its IT investment. The new meaning of ROI? Risk Of Ignoring. Some are quite articulate at mapping these broader concepts into specific, business-relevant examples that everyone can understand.
But there's not enough of them, I fear.
How Do We Get From Here To There?
When it became obvious that our economy was becoming a global one, it became very important that executives had global perspective and experience. Indeed, it's hard to imagine an executive these days in a larger organization that doesn't have a perspective and a strategy around China, India, Brazil, etc. It's just part of what's expected these days -- heck, it's even a part of standard business school coursework.
Well, it's now painfully obvious that our economy is becoming a digital one. Hence it's becoming very important that executives have a digital perspective and experience.
Here's a quick and fun exercise -- take out a copy of your exec org chart and ask the question -- how many of these people would you describe as "digitally literate"?
But change has started, that much is clear.
Indeed, you can point to some of the newer leadership roles that are emerging around driving transformations from legacy business models to newer digital ones. At some point, I'd expect we'd be seeing broader digital literacy find its way business school criteria as well.
And if you think the phenomenon is isolated to, say, consumer businesses, media companies, or newer web companies -- well, I'd offer that you're missing the bigger picture.
Back To The Beginning
When I ask a business executive about what they're doing around mobile, social, big data analytics, etc. -- I think the perception is that I'm hunting around for an EMC opportunity. I'm sure that's what the EMC rep thinks I'm doing.
But that's not really my motivation.
I'm just trying to gauge how digitally literate they might be.