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The digital revolution: push or pull?

The “digital revolution” has parallels with the 1889 Land Rush in Oklahoma. Some succeeded, some failed and others wished they had never set off on the journey

The Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889 was the first land rush into the “unassigned lands” offered to the public by the US government. Up to 50,000 people, on foot, horse or wagon, set off at the sound of a starting gun to occupy pieces of two million acres of free land with a promise from the government that if they improved it, they could settle the land and own it.                       

I see in the current drive to “digital revolution” a parallel with this land rush, during which some succeeded, some failed and others wished they had never begun the journey.

I read many articles on this topic, many urging dynamic, immediate action to drive innovation in their business IT that will add value to the company’s business. But will it? Let us examine the place of digitisation (whatever that means), and IT in general, in the business universe.

Firstly, we must grasp and never let go of the fact that IT, in whatever form, is a tool – and a tool needs a job to do. Purchasing masses of tools (the latest versions, of course) does nothing until there is a job to do with them. That job comes from a need, for example: “I need a large new table for the occasions I entertain people”. Let us move on one step further. All the woodworking tools in the world will not build that table without a design plan and a woodworker.

To build anything, a house or a business function, you need a plan – architecture in the former case, a suitable process in the latter. This, of course, needs to take account of the capability of the tools available to do the job. Only then will the synergy of plan/tools become a feasible project.

The Push Philosophy

There is a train of thought that says going digital has beneficial business effects of its own. I disagree with this as a bald principle; if you digitise a lousy business process or muck it up, there are no benefits. You’ll just get the bad effects sooner.

This is what I call the Push Philosophy. Its premise is that IT improvement, agility and all the other gee-whiz phrases enhance the business processes by themselves, without any other change. This is like trying to push a jelly up a slope: you may shatter the jelly. You cannot throw IT at business processes willy-nilly without understanding them and making the improvements at the business level, then apply IT where appropriate. This is the Pull Philosophy, dealt with next.

The Pull Philosophy

This mode of operation starts with the business and an understanding of its shortcomings, and some idea of the benefits that improvements to business processes will yield, over and above the effort involved. It does, however, involve some knowledge of what is feasible to implement the new business environment via IT, which will involve IT input at some stage.

The crux of this mode of working is that the business starts the process of business improvement and then IT pulls the relevant IT aspects into the equation. In both philosophies, the desired destination is the same, but the starting point is different. For example, if you want to ski on a slope, you don’t start near the bottom.

Implementing Pull

The “pushing” of technology onto business and the “pulling” of technology into the business is based on where it can help.

I have just read an article in which a company says it is going flat out pushing “digitisation” into the business (spectacles). It may work; it may not. In my near half-century in IT, my experience shows that throwing technology at a perceived (or non-existent) problem normally doesn’t work. Why?

Can the drive for digitisation be compared to the 1889 Oklahoma Land Rush?

The reason is that nearly all change involving IT involves the three Ps – people, processes and products (technology). To improve a business process or implement a new one will involve these three elements to one extent or another. Thinking that the third P will do the job is naive – it might, but it probably won’t in 95% of cases.

The key thing that “pushers” lack is the notion that technology is simply a tool, albeit a very powerful one. A tool needs a job to do to be of any use, which brings to mind the expression: “When all you have is a hammer, every screw is a nail.”

The way forward in digitisation is to review the business process, fit technology to it where applicable, and ensure people are up to using the new business form. This is not to decry technology, but a plea to see it in the context of the business it is meant to support.

One size doesn’t fit all

There is no doubt that IT, in its current form, has much to offer any business, but I am afraid one size doesn’t fit all. Going IT crazy without reference to business requirements, in order of importance or criticality, is like throwing lighter fuel on your barbecue to get it going faster.

No business can afford to screw up a business-critical process by thoughtless application of “digitisation” of the Push variety.

Technology today is often a godsend, but only when it matches business requirements, new or modified. The application of technology, however sophisticated, can often be a solution to which there is no problem.

I hear quite often the claim that iPads, iPhones, tablets and the like can solve communication problems. Not so in all cases, I’m afraid. If the information transmission process design is flawed, then technology just compounds it.

Such a process, designed along business needs, will dictate what data goes to whom, when, where, for what purpose, and the nature of any response. Technology cannot do that except to assist in a fetch-and-carry mode because it is simply a tool looking for a purpose.

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