How's the innovation of your digital transformation going?

I want to take a holistic look at a current paradigm shift, running a couple of ideas up your flag pole to see if you salute them.  I may be pushing the envelope, but I trust that moving you out of your comfort zone will be seen as empowering.

Hopefully, you cringed at least twice during that introduction. The world is full of meaningless clichés, and there are two more that seem to be permeating the IT world that I would like to consign to Room 101.

Firstly, in 2003, IBM carried out some research that showed that CEOs were heavily into ‘innovation’.  The term was not defined to the survey respondents, and my belief was (and still is) that the use of the term is like asking someone “Do you believe in good?”  Who is going to say “No”?

To define innovation, we need to go all the way back to its Latin roots.  It comes from ‘in novare’ – to make new.  Innovation is all about making changes, finding a different way to do something that you are already doing.

So – how’s it going in your organisation?  Over the past week, how many new ways of buying paperclips have you found?  How many new ways of writing code and patching systems; of purchasing applications and in paying your staff have you introduced?

If you are eternally innovating, then your organisation will be in eternal change – a chaotic set up that is unsustainable and unsurvivable.

There are three ways that an organisation can change; improvement, innovation and invention. Improvement is how an organisation does what it already does, with less cost, less risk and more productivity.  Innovation introduces the means to do something in a different way (which may mean incremental extra costs while the new way of doing things beds in), and then the biggie – invention: bringing in a new product or service that has never been done by the organisation before.

Balancing these three areas is what is key – for many organisations, a focus on improvement may have far greater payback than trying to be truly innovative.  For organisations in verticals such as pharmaceuticals, invention is far more important than improvement or innovation: the race to the 25 or so new molecular or chemical entities (NME/NCEs) cannot be won through just innovating existing processes.

Further, throwing technology at all of this is not the way to do it either.  And this brings me to my next term that needs deep investigation – ‘digital transformation’.  Reading the technology media and much analyst output would have you believe that your organisation will die next week if it isn’t going through some form of digital transformation.

However, what does this mean?  Replacing existing technical platforms with another – such as a move from client server to cloud?  Moving from on-premise applications to software as a service (SaaS)? Sticking two fingers up at your boss as they ask you to implement a strategic digital transformation project?

As is often the case, this terminology is an attempt to place technology at the centre of the organisation. A determination not to let IT be relegated to a position of a facilitator to the business is self-serving and can actually be harmful to the business itself.

Back in the days when customer relationship management (CRM) and enterprise resource planning (ERP) were all the rage, the number of companies that I saw who pretty much stated that they had ‘done’ CRM as they had bought Seibel, or ‘done’ ERP as they had bought SAP was frightening.

No strategic changes in business processes had been planned for or implemented – many of the companies just implemented the software and then changed their business processes to meet the way that the software worked.  Unsurprisingly, they then wondered why they struggled.

It is important to remember what technology is there for – it is there simply to enable an organisation to better carry out its business. The secret to a successful organisation is not in the technology it chooses and implements- it is in how well it chooses and implements technology to support its changing needs; in how the business can flexibly modify or replace its processes to meet market forces and so be successful in what it does.  If it can do this with an abacus, baked bean cans and pieces of wet string, then so be it – you do not need to be seen as the uber-nerd who introduced a scale-out supercomputer with a multi-lambda optical global network.

So, fine – if you want to tick off two terms on your cliché bingo card, then make sure that you are innovative in your digital transformation.  Just make sure that you sit down with the business and understand how it what it needs in that balance of improvement, innovation and invention, and provide it with the IT platform that enables that to happen for as long as possible.

Just think – providing the organisation with a technical platform that actually supports it: one that is flexible enough to embrace the future and enable rapid change.  That would be truly innovative.

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