Being perceived as a visionary is a relatively easy task. All you have to do is identify a handful of clearly visible trends, extrapolate a bit, and then loop back with practical advice on what to do about it now.
Example: I have a friend who's currently looking at oceanfront property. He showed me a place that was right on the water. I suggested he might consider a house with a bit more elevation? Sure, it might not be a visible problem now, but if you think out a few years ...
Here's the point: there's rapid and unprecedented climate change in the business world. Our society is forcefully transforming to a digital world.
Our current business models -- designed for the physical world -- now have to be dramatically re-engineered to adapt and thrive in this new economy. A palpable sense of urgency is at hand.
IT can supply the platforms and tools, but do our leaders and management teams have the necessary skills and context required to lead the way forward?
If you can answer "yes", you're quite fortunate -- the rest of us have some heavy lifting to do.
Just like we had to learn to thrive in a global economy, and a sustainable economy -- we now have to learn how to thrive in a digital economy.
And that's something they didn't teach us in business school.
I wish I could point to a proven body of knowledge and delivery mechanisms to achieve this important goal, but no such luck
I've been looking, and there isn't much out there at the executive level -- sure, there are pieces here and there, but they certainly don't fit together as I'd like to see.
At some point, this will surely change, but in the meantime, it's a roll-your-own proposition.
I've now been asked several times -- if I were constructing an agenda for mid-to-senior level leaders -- what would I put in it?
So, in an effort to kick-start the discussion, here it is:
Before We Begin
This particular line of thought originally bubbled up in many of my discussions with the more progressive IT leaders.
They clearly see what is happening: yes, they are building powerful capabilities that are desperately needed from a competitive perspective -- but the business doesn't know how to consume and build on them intelligently -- and ultimately to think in terms of doing business differently.
The tools are there, the knowledge and the motivation to use them are not. Obviously, this is a critical strategic challenge that IT can't solve by itself.
Enter the notion of "executive digital literacy" -- create a sequence of business-oriented educational experiences that work to address this fundamental challenge. Partner with HR (or whoever) and drive the agenda.
It's not an IT thing, it's a business thing.
It won't be pretty -- or easy -- but it has to be done: sooner than later.
The Challenge Is Breadth
One of the daunting aspects of this topic is sheer breadth.
The central challenge is giving people a quick appreciation for the importance of a topic, and then show how it weaves with everything else you're discussing -- but do it in such a way that it's relevant to their world, and not yours.
Any one of these sub-topics can be miles deep on their own, but you don't have the luxury of making everyone expert at everything. And bringing in a beauty pageant of deep experts won't create the ultimate value: patterns and connections that need to be understood.
So, if I had the task of assembling a curriculum, here's how I would tackle the problem.
From Physical To Digital
Creating context is important, especially in an educational setting -- what's going on, why is it important, etc.? Here's how I'd want to start off:
- compelling evidence that our world is changing: growth of mobile, amount of information generated, societal impacts, etc.
- a comparison of physical business models to digital ones, with examples of well-understood digital business models.
- detailed examples of organizations that are transforming themselves
- a few ugly examples of organizations that didn't make the change
My goal of the first module would be to get deep acknowledgement that the world we live in is changing, and business as usual probably isn't an attractive option.
We -- as a leadership team -- have a new challenge on our collective hands.
The Digital Business Model
Next, I'd want to present a few different views of a digital business model -- major components, and a sense of how they might work together.
I'd want to show a component-oriented functional view -- not in too much detail -- showing things like social, mobile, apps, etc. I'd resist the temptation to spend more than a minute or two on each -- just the conceptual highlights.
I'd then show a quick sequence of before-and-after business processes that everyone could relate to: here's how we find and engage with customers, here's how we deliver our unique value proposition, here's how compete and differentiate, etc.
Here's how they work in today's world, here's how they could work in a digital world
After everyone hopefully got that idea, I'd go even further and show an organizational view with some interesting new corporate components: e.g. digital program office, customer experience teams, information governance, and so on. Not that these would be the right answer, just to make the point that you're probably not organized for success, and need to think about that as well.
New world, new business model, new functional components, new organizational components -- does your head hurt yet? Good -- that's exactly the point.
And now it's time to start our tour ...
I think most everyone understands that we all carry around mobile devices these days. What I don't think people fully appreciate is the broader societal impact.
Our mobile devices are becoming the most personal things in our lives. They encapsulate and present our digital life: our work, our relationships, our hobbies and interests, our opinions and perspectives.
What do you do first when you wake up in the morning -- kiss your partner good morning, or check your mobile?
Unless your company has an engaging presence in people's digital life (customers, employees, partners, etc.) -- you're not going to be engaged with them -- which, of course, means you won't likely be relevant to them either.
A simple idea, but oh so important.
We are genetically programmed to be social animals. As we move to the digital realm, we take those needs and behaviors with us -- we just use different tools.
We listen to what everyone else is saying, and it influences us. We seek out conversations that interest us. Occasionally, we express our views and preferences. We naturally gravitate towards communities with shared interests -- just like in the physical world.
It's so easy to pivot to endlessly discussing all the various popular platforms where people are doing this -- Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest et. al. I think that misses the point -- you care more about understanding and leveraging the behavior, less about the specific tools and platforms.
And, no, social isn't just a marketing thing -- it's a business thing: just like in the real world.
I'm finding the term "apps" too broad here -- it's important to do a bit of unpacking.
I suppose the logical starting point are the day-in, day-out applications we use every day: perhaps Twitter, or the new iOS version of Google Maps, Evernote, email, etc. Please note that almost all of these are mobile and social :)
Next up would be what I call "engagement apps" -- how do you create a engaging (and sticky) relationship with someone you care about: a customer, a partner, a key role in your organization?
By the way, if we want to keep those relationships, we'll always have to be coming up with better and more interesting/useful apps. Note that these too are almost always mobile and social :)
I'd then move to "process apps" -- we, as an organization, have learned a way to do things better, and we've instantiated that knowledge in an app. I'd pitch this as formalization of business insight.
If we're aspiring to be a fast-moving, fast-learning business, we'll need a *lot* of these, and a high-speed factory to be continually cranking out new ones. Also preferably mobile and social.
Better to think in terms of continual improvement processes, vs. "the ultimate answer".
Because, in this world, there isn't one.
Understanding Big Data Analytics
Since we're now largely working in a digital realm, just about everything of interest can be tracked, measured, searched, analyzed, etc.
We need to learn to get very good at harvesting this new digital wealth, extracting value, and using that insight to do even more amazing things.
Of course, new skills are required -- like data science. But, more importantly, it results in a new style of decision making around listening to what the predictive model is telling you vs. the proverbial "hippo" (highest paid person in the organization).
Big data analytics is the R&D of the 21st century. And it's not your father's BI.
Understanding Information Platforms
Mobile, social, apps, analytics -- all of these produce or consume information in some form. Just like most business activities require finding and using money intelligently, the same is true of information in a digital world.
Becoming proficient at finding, using, generating and harvesting information is as important as understanding how money, finance, budgets etc. all work. And we all know about that stuff.
Enter the notion of an information platform: the conceptual repository of your digital wealth. Quantity and quality matters. Of course, it needs to be protected and secured.
Learn to think of it the same way you think about your headcount, or your budget.
Most things you'll want to do in this emerging world will require software, and software needs a place to run. That's where cloud comes in.
If it helps, think of it as you would a temp or contracting agency -- get what you need, when you need it, with much less of a need for long-term forecasting.
If you run a good-sized organization, you'll realize having access to a variable and on-demand talent pool is a useful thing -- but you'd probably avoid over-using it for sustained periods of time -- at least without careful thought.
Cloud is roughly the same thing -- it can give you speed, flexibility and agility in a digital world.
A Moment Of Reflection?
If it were me doing this, I'd stop, and invite the audience to rate their current capabilities in each of these areas: mobile, social, apps, information platform, cloud, etc. What do we have today? What do our competitors have? What will we need to have before long?
It shouldn't be surprising, but most people in larger settings aren't often aware what's already around them -- or how it can be used in new and different ways. There's usually something to build on going forward.
There's actually two things here: the capabilities themselves -- and our individual responsibilities to be aware of how to put them to use.
Bringing The Pieces Together
So, stepping back a bit, by now we've created a picture of a new kind of business model -- a digital one -- and we've done a brief conceptual tour of some the key components. Now would be a good time to put these ideas to work through a visioning exercise -- how we do things today, and how could we do things differently.
A good starting point is at the front end -- finding and engaging with customers. How do we find them today, and how could we find them differently? Or -- better yet -- how do we make it so they want to find us?
Every organization delivers a value proposition -- sort of their fundamental reason for existing in the first place. What is that value proposition today? How would we re-express that value proposition in a digital world? What new value propositions could we offer?
Or, perhaps look inside. Every company runs on people -- how do we find good people, bring them into the organization, make them more successful over time, and keep them around?
This part would be hard, mostly because more people don't have an appreciation of how these things work today. But I'd persist -- because after three or four visioning exercises, people's creative juices ought to be really bubbling by now.
Time for a little injection of reality ...
So, hopefully, by now we've got a rough consensus of an ideal state, and the reason to make the journey. But nothing good is easy, and nothing easy is good. We owe it to our participants to provide a clear-eyed view of some the visible obstacles along the way.
Let's start with the obvious: a likely internal shortage of skills, experience and perspective.
Acknowledge it, get it on the table -- but also point out that the current educational exercise is part of the answer, which is why they're here in the first place. Trust me, people can learn new things, if they're given the opportunity and the motivation.
In most organizations, the responsibility for closing this gap typically falls to the HR function.
Right after that, there's risk management.
How do we go about identifying new forms of risk, minimizing the impact -- and do so in such a way that doesn't impede forward progress? It's likely that whatever is being done today doesn't meet this need.
This responsibility falls to the risk management function -- be it legal, finance or something else.
I'd then shift the discussion to funding and financial models. Doing meaningful things in the digital world necessarily implies you'll be doing stuff with technology, and a lot of it. All of that has to be paid for -- it's not free.
It is most likely that the current IT funding model is based on really big projects with really long schedules and really big price tags. While that doesn't entirely go away, the dominant consumption model becomes IT-as-a-service.
This requires that the primary IT funding model shifts to variable consumption: here are the variable services you'll need, here's what they can do, here's what they cost, here's how you'll have to learn how to consume them intelligently.
This one belongs to the financial controller -- in a digital business model, IT is just another business ingredient, just like headcount, travel, facilities, etc.
And, of course, the IT organization has to change its traditional orientation to become the internal IT service provider of choice -- no small feat.
Organizing For Success
By now, everyone should have a strong appreciation that there are a *lot* of moving pieces involved here. They all have to evolve -- of course -- but not every piece can (or wants to!) evolve at the required pace.
Enter the notion of the "program office" -- an empowered group, reporting directly to executive leadership, that works cross-functionally to drive systematic evolution across multiple parts of the organization.
Frequently, these functions have a very visible executive at the help (chief digital officer, chief strategy officer, etc.) -- but their mission is clear: get busy on re-inventing the business for the digital world that is now upon us.
But for a program office approach to be effective, it needs to interface with like-minded functions. Ideally, you see a pattern where individual functions (IT, finance, marketing, legal, etc.) create their *own* cross-functional teams to align with the broader charter of the program office. Strong leadership is inevitably required at multiple levels of the organization.
Everybody helps out, and works together to make progress. It's slow getting started, but after a while the pace picks up, and all sorts of great stuff starts happening -- if you stick with it.
... And If We Don't?
By now, there ought to be a visible undercurrent of justifiable resistance in the room. Unless people are starting to visibly push back, you're not being effective in communicating the magnitude of what's involved.
One part of the response might be a team exercise. It's five years from now. For whatever reason, we -- as a company -- have decided not to do these things, or perhaps not do them in an organized fashion.
What does the world look like in five years? What kind of company are we? Who are our customers? Why do they continue to buy from us? What kind of people want to work here?
But more needs to be done.
When I was promoting social media proficiency, we dubbed it "WIIFM" -- what's in it for me? How is all of this a win for me personally? You've got to go beyond the organizational level, and get right to the core of what really motivates people at an individual level.
I'm not shy about having that conversation, but it has to be tailored to the situation at hand. Not everyone is personally motivated in the same way.
The Personal Commitment
Any time I do a session on driving change, I like to finish on a big note.
There's serious work ahead. It's not optional. Nobody is going to make it easy for us.
For us grownups, life isn't full of Happy Meals.
But we can do it. We can make a commitment -- individually and collectively -- to move forward. We can build on what we already have, work together, and work on continual improvement.
We acknowledge the difficulty and the ambiguity, but we also see a wonderful opportunity to develop, grow and lead others through a fundamental business transformation.
Because the alternatives are far worse.