What Is ‘Digital’?

Despite working in the digital space for years, now I was quite stumped a few weeks ago when i was asked to define it. Sometimes you can get away by circumlocution or to use the technically correct term, waffling. But given all the hype around digital transformation, I felt that it was a good time to try and get a working definition going. For one it helps to cut the hype. And two, clarifies what is NOT digital at a time when the label is being slapped around with abandon.

So I read descriptions of digital in the media, and on our competitors sites. I listened to analysts and and read books and white papers. I asked our clients what they were doing. And I spoke to the experts in Cognizant, and spent time just thinking about this. And I’m happy to say I’m willing to stick my neck out and try and define digital in less than 25 words.

Of course the problem with definitions is the tradeoff between pithiness, abstraction and comprehensiveness. You can be very pithy but be too abstract e.g. ‘Digital is the future of business’. Or you can take a whole page to define digital, but that’s a description and not a definition. So here’s my definition and you’re welcome to challenge it or differ with it, or adapt it as you wish.

Digital means: exploiting emerging technologies to create user / customer centric interfaces and data driven business models, leading to more agile, responsive and competitive business models.

Let’s break this up.

Emerging technologies are certainly a driving force of digital. It’s the reason why we’re having this conversation. But to be clear, there are many discrete elements that make up the emerging technology theme. Arguably the big bang for ‘digital’ is the launch of the iPhone – because it put powerful computers into people’s pockets. It democratised access and provided a platform for almost all the other innovations. Samsung’s (and others’) lower cost and Android driven imitation of the iPhone ensured a mass market for smart phones. Alongside the smart phone though, you have to consider the continuously evolving web 2.0 (are we still allowed to say that?) and the emergence and maturing of HTML5, Javascript and more frameworks to deliver slick web front ends than you can shake a smartphone at. HTML5 and the ever improving web have had a see-saw battle with native mobile platforms, frameworks and entire generations of technology have come and gone in the past 5 years. Remember MCAP and MEAP platforms, and the allure of cross platform development for mobile apps? All of this have also greatly helped social platforms – which includes Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp and hundreds of messaging and collaboration platforms.

Behind the scenes: But this is not just about front end technologies. Moore’s Law continues to drive the cost of computing down, leading to significant capabilities to process data – be it the in-memory database capability of a SAP Hana or the emergence of Big Data, and our ability to analyse and make meaning of ever larger data sets in continuously decreasing cycle times. Newer and more efficient Graph (Neo4J) and clustered database models (Hadoop) are supplanting the once ubiquitous RDBMS providers. And the en masse shift to cloud infrastructure and smarter automation has created a whole universe of services – starting with the PAAS and now a generic ‘as a service’ nomenclature.

The Internet of Everything: And to top it all, the next wave of internet connected sensors and devices is just beginning. Another whole wave of connected and smart objects has the potential to change everything, again, in the way we buy and consume goods and services. The Internet of Things does not have a single killer app, yet, but it’s growth and spread nonetheless are accelerating.

Its not what you did, its how you did it: the shift in the underlying methodology has played its role. The maturing and widespread adoption of agile frameworks and the toolkits to deliver them is a key construct of digital. The rapid evolution of technologies both necessitates and enables a much more adaptive and cyclical approach to technology delivery.

Design thinking: Almost absurdly, all this fantastic technology is still not what truly drives the digital change we see in businesses us. That honour belongs to the emergence of design thinking and service design methodologies. Some of this is commonsensical and you would think should have been the norm rather than an innovation. But the mind-shift is fundamental. Industry leading businesses are now recognising the need to be customer journey driven. I use the word interface in a broad sense here and not just restricted to screens. The question to ask is how do your customers, partners and even employees interface with your business? Historically, this was driven by inside-out thinking. In other words, businesses decided how they wanted to run their processes and designed systems and interfaces to match those desired processes. So if a bank’s preference was for the customer to be in the branch while opening an account, that’s how the processes and systems were defined. In digital, those interfaces are conceptualised outside-in. This means the starting point is the user. What does she or he want to do? How does the prospective customer want to open the account? What are her constraints? What would make her choice easer and her experience better? Once you start thinking outside in – you reach a very different point in the way systems and processes are defined. And when you combine this user centric interface thinking with the technology opportunities that are emerging you begin to understand why transformation is the buzzword du jour.

Data Driven Decisions: Implicitly or explicitly, every decision we make (what to wear to work, for example) is made on the basis of data that we process (what meetings do I have, what is the dress code, what is the weather?). Complex decisions require more sophisticated data. Historically this data has not been available to us for many large and small decisions. How much to spend on the marketing campaign? Where to open the next store? Who to hire as a program leader for a new business area? How to implement a hot-desking policy? As a consequence, most businesses have relied on ‘experts’ for these decisions, whether they are from within the business or consultants brought in for the purpose. Experts use their wisdom which is often an implicit accumulation of data from deep experience in that area. What we are witnessing, thanks to the combination of lean thinking and instrumentation, is a seismic shift to more explicit data driven decision making. For example, if everybody used a smart phone to access the office for a month or two, it might provide data that suggests that wednesdays are the busiest day of the week while friday is the lightest. The latter may be visually obvious but the former may not. Or the data may show that on mondays, the average time spent in office by people is actually just 4 hours – because they are in meetings or on projects outside. Suddenly there is explicit data to influence your hot-decking policy depending on what your objectives were. This is a tiny example but very representative of how digital is reshaping our decision making. Now imagine this at scale and for the hundreds of decisions made every day and you get a sense of what I mean.

Responsive business models:  we are used to stability and to treating change as a temporary disruption between periods of stability. Not dissimilar to moving house. Increasingly though, we find ourselves in a state of continuous change. The disruption is not a passing inclemency, but it is the new normal. Think of moving from a house to a caravan, for example. What the combination of technologies, design thinking and data surfeit allow us, is to build a responsive or adaptive business model that is able to keep pace with a fast changing environment. Think evolving operating model instead of target operating model. Think of the cost of change as a part of the cost of doing business, not as a capital expenditure. Obviously, industry context is vital – Retail banks and media businesses are much further down the path of transformation than, say, infrastructure providers. But while the impact may vary, the change is universal. Digital is not therefore about B2C vs B2B, it’s not about marketing or about your social media. I believe this is fundamentally about your business model being impacted by better data, delivered at the point of decision making.

Agile Strategy: Seen in this way, it would therefore be logical to look at your strategy as an agile and evolving artefact. Many companies still look at 3 year or 5 year plans which are sequential. Instead, we should be looking at rolling 12 quarter roadmaps which reflect our strategy, but which can be modified on a quarterly basis, keeping a vision or end goal in mind. But more about that some other time.

The point of all this is to be competitive. And digital business models which use technology, design thinking and data optimally are far more competitive in the world we live in. I heard John Chambers, the CEO of Cisco, say ‘Change will never be this slow again’. And 52% of companies from the Fortune 500 list of 2000 no longer exist. Collectively that sums up the challenges and dangers of being change resistant. So whether you agree with my definition of digital or not, a response to the change around us is not optional. Enjoy the ride!

Suggested reading:
Code Halos: Malcolm Frank, Ben Pring & Paul Roehrig
Being Digital: Nicholas Negroponte
Dataclysm: Christian Rudder
Mobile Mindshift: Ted Schadler, Josh Bernoff, Julie Ask
This Is Service Design Thinking: Marc Stickdorn  & Jakob Schneider
The Lean Start Up: Eric Ries

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Internet of Things – Hype & Hope

(I had the privilege of speaking about IOT at the Oxford Technology and Media forum yesterday. What follows is the gist of my session and some thoughts from the panel discussion)

The tech industry is often guilty of pushing technology solutions to consumer without focusing on the benefits, the emotions and simplicity. Invariably, businesses that get it, do better at selling tech to consumers. Apple are clearly the masters at it, but UK customers will know that after many years of ‘interactive television’ discussions, what customers bought were ‘sky plus’ and ‘red button services’. (The technology didn’t actually deliver on the promise, but that’s a different story).

So we come to the Internet of Things and I believe, we’ve swung to a different end of the pendulum. We’ve created a pithy, catchy phrase, something that everybody can relate to and not be daunted by the jargon. I would personally have preferred the internet of stuff (stuff is cooler than things). But the internet of things means (pardon the expression) bugger-all when it comes to actually buying, implementing or solving something.

Maybe I’m being harsh. It’s a catch-all word conveying a general wave of technologies much like “digital convergence” in the broadcast and comms space. But it’s a very loaded phrase and masks many layers of complexity that haven’t yet been resolved to the point where they can be implemented. Or even understood by the consumer.

The IOT includes communication between machines, between people and machines, and also between people and people via machines. It includes wearables, and all manners of sensors, and an ever increasing ocean of data, an implicit assumption of an economically viable, reliable and available network. And so far, very few standards.

After all, we’re all spoilt by the Internet – in the world of standards driven browsers, we only had to worry about the browser environment. The most complex questions in the early days of the web included ‘web safe’ colours. And later, pushing the limits of HTML. You never had to think about the OS, the device (are you viewing the website on a Dell or IBM laptop?) You didn’t have to think about whether the user was sitting or standing or walking around. And all you had to know was a URL, and the internet would find the website from over 50 million computers in a fraction of a second. Even transactions and ecommerce are now taken for granted. 

In the IOT world, all these are non-standard and have to be thought from scratch. What’s the user interface of a ‘thing’? If it’s a sensor on a coffee machine vs a door, how should we access the data, how can interact with the thing? The design challenge moves from an ‘interface’ design to an experience and even environment design. Who designs the experience of walking into a retail store which is armed with iBeacons or other sensors? Design challenge will range from fitting an antenna while managing heat dissipation, to figuring out how to retail product aesthetics while adding a bunch of tech.

Service design has been a term in vogue for a few months now, but is fundamental to the creation of IOT models. We must take a design centric view and build from there. That’s the only way we’ll get around to focusing on the right problems to solve, to ensure adoption.

As with all emerging technologies, we’re in the world of ‘compound change’ – where each layer builds on previous layers, and so it creates an exponential change curve, which is near impossible for us to predict, since we’re still very used to thinking in linear terms. What is intuitive to me, is that we’ll get entirely new companies dominating the IOT space, in the way that FB, LinkedIn and Twitter dominate the social sphere, and Google and Amazon dominate the web, Apple and Samsung dominate mobile devices and Microsoft and Intel dominated the Desktop world.

Because, this will take a whole new business model. It will shift value, destroy old models and create entirely new services. Most often, we think of new tech as better ways of doing what we do today. So the ‘better’ model leads us to thinking about how our fridge will tell us when it’s out of milk. Rather than ‘different’ models – perhaps our fridge telling us which of the foods we’re storing has the earliest use-by date, so we can modify our consumption appropriately. Or other more imaginative and useful behaviours.

Undoubtedly the way in which business models will evolve will involve adding layers of services to existing and new products. The value of the service will outstrip the value of the product. You may pay more for the service of tracking your weight and the feedback on your lifestyle and diet, than you do for the weighing scale itself. In fact asset ownership models may change, with companies willing to give you the asset for free in order to lock you into the service, or simply, follow an asset leasing model, which brings down your outlay but enables longer term revenue stream for the seller. Soon we should be able to view this information and services layer explicitly and this explicit-isation of the service and information layer may be one of the biggest sources of consumer value in the IOT. This would enable us to understand better the total cost of any product (say a sweater, or a vaccuum cleaner) and make different choices on that basis. It would also align value realisation with costs – imagine a washing machine which you lease and pay per use.

Although it’s tempting to consider just the things we acquire and own, there are all those things we use, which form the asset base for service delivery, from smart meters, to hotel rooms and railway stations to rented cars. These can all also follow the same principles of creating explicit service and information layers, so that maintenance, usage, and cost and value can all be tracked more easily. Then you have natural resource and public environments – weather, floods, pollution tracking, and more.

As has been noted, it is almost impossible to talk about IOT and emerging technology of any kind without talking about data, privacy and security. I used to think, like everybody else, about a data brokerage, or info-mediary. Now I think data-brokerage should be a feature built into every product. A data brokerage module will ensure that consumers data is stored, transacted and valued in a way that is fair to both sides, and in a transparent manner. Really, you can’t ask for more than that.

Undoubtedly the IOT is a big deal. We’re talking about billions of connected devices changing the way we live our everyday lives. The transformativer potential of this can barely be imagined. I just hope we use this to solve some of the bigger problems we face – the energy crisis, caring for an ageing population, getting supplies more efficiently to the needy, across the world. And not spending too much time debating whether our kettle should gossip with our washing machine.