Doing Digital: 10 Starting Points

There is an alluring future that digital enthusiasts like us love to project. It involves the excellent and industry shaping use of analytics and big data, whist getting our customers and consumers to love us on web, mobile and social platforms and willingly offering us their data so we can turn it into ever more gasp-worthy products. In this world, we’ve magic-wanded away the infrastructure challenges, the silos and politics of real businesses, the cultural inertia and significant technological challenges.

Most companies that I know get this picture and they agree with the destination but have no idea about the journey. Most importantly, they don’t know where to start. Here are 10 recommendations / observations for getting your digital show on the road.

(This post comes from an opportunity I had to speak about digital recently. At the time of writing this, I’ve identified at least double this number of recommendations, but for the purpose of this piece, here are 10 basic ones). 

Understanding How Digital Is Different:

  1. Digital is creative and emotional: Traditional IT works from process outwards, building on conformity and compliance, and the focus is on the logic of the solution, and it’s efficiency. Digital starts with the user journey inwards, building on individual creativity and embracing diversity of users and behaviours. The focus is on engagement, and getting users to use your product, over the many viable options available to them. Consequently this is about the emotional connect to the user. The only right solution is the one that engages your users. One of my favourite examples is the “get me home” button on the national rail app. It ticks the boxes for emotional responses while also enabling a context sensitive and customised response all at once. 

  2. Digital is lean. I don’t think it’s a coincidence the digital explosion is synchronous with the widespread adoption of lean and agile thinking. In the way that technology landscape is morphing and changing, it is far more important to be agile than to be right. You can be right once, bur it’s likely you’ll be wrong often. On the other hand, lean methodologies allow us to live with change and learning. This is why Evernote which performs that most basic task of taking notes (and on which I’m actually composing this piece) is able to succeed against a Microsoft, Apple and a hundred other note taking softwares. Most of the digitally successful companies I’ve worked with have started small but innovated fast and often. 

  3. Digital is Di-Phy. An increasingly intermingled amalgam of digital and physical environments. When thinking of solution architecture, we not only have to think about software, OS and hardware, but also of the physical environment in which the solution exists. An excellent and simple example of this is the QR codes on London bus-stops which when scanned, indicate bus times. It’s a highly responsive system which is actually faster than the otherwise excellent bus-timing applications which exist. But one which requires thinking through the solution, user experience, deployment and use, across the physical and digital elements.

How To Do Digital

  1. Start anywhere but start now: Many people I know agonise over which business processes to start with first. While you could certainly spend a few days in shortlisting the most critical user journeys that define your product or service, it’s probably more important that you start soon, rather than start with the right process. Start anywhere, somewhere, but start today. Transform one user journey. This will typically necessitate new processes and changes to existing processes. It might even lead to the creation of new products or services. Most importantly this will create a significant number of new digital touch points which will be sources of new data. 

  2. Digital Infrastructure is critical: The digital tools usually get the most amount of attention – mobile, social, sensors, and more. But you need to consider a stratification within the tools. The three mentioned above and project-level analytics can be considered at a project level. However, you also need to consider the digital infrastructure layer, which should be addressed at an enterprise level. This includes cloud, security and middleware as well as enterprise analytics. The last of these deserve special mention and we’ll come back to it. But cloud, security and middleware are critical to almost every project, yet are best managed as a common, infrastructure layer, where the investment can be shared between a number of projects. Cloud solutions can be used in the enterprise to enable any number of services for projects to consume, so the benefits are more than just the cost savings of scale. Middleware includes both MBaaS products (e.g. Kidozen, Anypresence) and API Management ones (ApiGee), for example. Security needs to be thought end to end, including authentication and identity management, especially in a multi-device, cloud based environment. Most companies still seem to be underinvesting in digital infrastructure. I believe 2015 may be the year that digital infrastructure may become front and centre for CIOs. 

  3. Meaning Making is the promised land: Ultimately this game will boil down to the quality of data you collect, the efficiency and effectiveness of algorithms you can write and the new meanings and insight you can create, to serve customers better. However, starting off with a ‘big data’ project may not be the right approach. You also need to improve the quality and depth of your own data, which is best done through digital touch points. The Code Halo (TM) model recommends that you create an inventory of touchpoints. The Mobile Moments Model from Forrester Analysis suggests identifying those specific points where you can change a customer perception or experience via mobile led experiences. You get the drift. You need to start with simple digital models, but keep at the back of your head that the goal is to feed that meaning machine you’re building. Make sure you identify and collect the right kind of data through each of your digital projects.

What do IT Departments & Vendors have to do differently?

  1. Engineering & Design Culture: This article by Mark Kawano, a former designer at Apple points out that contrary to popular belief, it’s not that Apple always employed the best design talent, but it was more that Apple had an engineering culture that viewed design and user experience. This happy confluence of engineering and user experience design philosophies has very powerful synergies. It means that engineers never build without thinking about user experience, so the bar is already set pretty high. It also means that any inputs from user experience experts is sought proactively, consistently and valued highly, as a part of the engineering and technology development process. Much of traditional IT still treats UX as a necessary evil that must be endured to “beautify” the great work that engineering has already done. This culture is prevalent across the vendor community as well as IT departments. As such it results in the proverbial ‘lipstick on a pig’, in terms of output. It is not a coindence that IBM are among the top recruiters of design talent right now, but it remains to be seen whether the average engineer sees user experience design as core to his or her work. 

  2. Stakeholder Complexity: Typically the stakeholder map of a digital project is very different from that of a traditional IT project. Suddenly you have marketing, communications, sales, LOB associates, and many others around the table, engaged in the minutiae of the execution. Consequently, you need to have project and program management of a very different kind – you need to speak the language of all these different groups of people and not rely on IT jargon. This is a slightly greater challenge for offshore providers as there are a few more linguistic and cultural barriers to cross. 

  3. Rejigging the commercial model: Most businesses work with budgets and ROI calculations. Vendors work with gross and net margin projections for programmes and clients. In digital projects, owing to the the stakeholder complexity as well as the uncertainties, it is imperative that we err on the side of over investment in managing the early stages of projects. Note, this is different from over investing in the solution or technology. It just means creating a stronger, more robust program & project management and user experience layers, to work through those initial hiccups. The project over it’s lifetime will in all probability more than pay back that earlier investment. Don’t look for project margins for the first 3 months. 

  4. Collaboration on steroids? Last, and certainly not the least, in this list, is the heightened need for collaboration. As white space opportunities open up, which don’t sit in the traditional industry vertical or horizontal boxes, there is an increased need for joined up thinking. Consider for example the connected home – part media, part utility, part telecom, it provides opportunities for entirely new value propositions comprising a wide range of technology solutions. The same would apply to Connected Cars, Smart Cities, or Wellness markets. Traditional IT departments and IT Vendors are long used to working in specific sectors and visible reward mechanisms. This kind of fuzzy collaboration with lack of clarity about the outcomes and rewards at an individual level, requires a mind shift from this traditional mode of thinking.

Once again, I can think of at least 10 more areas of difference, either in philosophy or in action, but we’ll save that for a later date!


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