‘Digital’ – the new Millennium Bug?

Complex organisations have to make their technology work harder and in new ways in order to support the pace of change and to deliver greater efficiency. In the private sector the pressure comes from global competition, customer expectations and new market entrants. In the public sector, financial pressures and the need to join up services to respond to growing and changing public demands require new models of delivery.

IT will lie at the heart of this, but simply using ‘more IT’ and labelling that investment ‘digital’ is not the answer (and is not doing ‘IT’ any favours). Without some more basic things changing, ‘digital’ will become the new ‘millennium bug’ – a lot of over-selling of the need to spend more on IT, based on hype, fear, uncertainty and doubt.

By all means create a CDO position and encourage IT enabled transformation and self-service. However, don’t overlook the need for a vision and agreed strategy that defines the importance of digitisation for all parts of the business. This will almost certainly include commonality of technology design principles, as well as greater standardisation of tools, security, identity management and integration – for staff, customers and supplier access. But that won’t be nearly enough to make a real difference to competitiveness, efficiency or customer service.

For example, optimised departmental systems which in the past have duplicated common processes, have proved to be poor value for money and unsustainable. Yet so many technologists (and more understandably suppliers) think a move to digital starts with a look at how we source IT – which suppliers to use, which tools and ‘apps’, open source vs. proprietary, how much to spend on IT, new IT service contracts. In my view this completely (and dangerously) misses the point. We need to stop buying more IT and think first about how we want to operate, resisting the desire to acquire, tailor and customise tools to support processes designed around individual departmental or customer service needs.

This is a seismic cultural change within the IT function and across the business. We have spent over two decades saying the IT must be responsive to each and every business need… and often we’ve won awards for that over-engineering! We now need to abandon the mantra that ‘we must be led by business, not by IT’ – in a digital world IT is the business and it must deliver automation, self-service and empowered employees, suppliers and customers, without creating multiple different ways of doing common things.

It’s a new business model, especially with regard to business risk. It is one which recognises the role of IT, but more importantly on individual decision making, with less hierarchical ‘command and control’ management practices. It depends on rigour and discipline from the top to the bottom of the organisation in adopting standard practices, yet encourages individual responsibility and accountability to act quickly, make the right judgments and be trusted to do so.

IT must help us to move quickly from ‘clunky’ and unintuitive back office systems, to modern and flexible tools. Tools which allow all employees, suppliers and customers to access intuitively designed systems, on the move, from anywhere, at any time, with any device and with real time transaction processing (no management, admin, and ‘return to the office’ intervention required). It needs a fully layered and integrated technology platform upon which digital solutions are implemented, whilst supporting legacy applications .. but it is more about process, governance and culture, than it is about the technology per se.

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