29th November 2020
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Three Lessons for the Future of Digital Transformation
It has now been more than 9 months since I last visited my office. I don’t miss queuing at 7:30am on a cold November morning for the lottery of getting a seat on the commuter train. The tedious journey that takes me into the centre of London to face overcrowded buses that force me to walk the rest of the way to arrive at my desk at 9am. Yet, all that time working from the home office (aka the “spare bedroom”) has required a lot of adjustments. Many for the better such as reducing commute time. But undoubtedly others are having a damaging effect on the quality and enjoyment of my work activities such as lack of informal time with colleagues. What started out as a boon is now making me rethink. Businesses are experiencing a similar reality.
The organizations we work for have had to face significant disruption, both for good and bad. The initial lockdown has been followed by a prolonged period of various forms of shutdown for many offices, stores, factories, and workplaces. Adjustments were required at many levels: IT infrastructure, working practices, operating policies, and workplace regulations, and many more. The challenges experienced sent shockwaves through every organization.
To continue operation, most companies and institutions quickly accelerated deployment of digital technologies, opened up new digital channels, and made significant alterations to existing digital platforms. A great deal was accomplished in a short time. Digital transformation was seen as an essential component of that success.
However, as I previously discussed, one key concern is that the Covid-induced panic of early 2020 created a significant “technical debt” that many organizations will be paying back for some time to come. The most obvious example is in areas such as data privacy and cybersecurity. The workplace changes forced many companies into remote working scenarios that had previously been considered impossible or ill-advised. Individuals working from home needed to get on with their daily activities, so IT teams did all they could to keep things moving. They have rightly been hailed as heroes in ensuring business continuity in extraordinary circumstances.
But, inevitably, a mountain of “technical debt” now must be faced by every organization. With sensitive information stored on the family laptop, data shared over a myriad of external filesharing systems, misconfigured unsecured wifi connections, and much more, the IT issues that have to now be addressed seem unending. And the opportunities for fraud, errors, and abuse are unprecedented. Not only are there dire warnings of Covid related scams, there are also now government-issued warning about the cybersecurity threats that hasty Covid-based decisions have only sought to exacerbate.
Beyond these immediate technical concerns lie a myriad of other issues to be faced. The on-going redefinition of the working environment over much of the year is taking its toll. From managing customer relationships, to on boarding of new employees, to coordinating the development of individual and team skills, we are seeing the impact this is having on all of us across many areas of our working lives.
I have been considering these issues in preparing for an upcoming webinar on the impact of the pandemic on working practices. While discussing the challenges facing organizations in today’s digital economy, I was struck by the thought that there is an increasing tension arising between the initial attitudes and approaches that helped organizations to face disruption and those required to move forward now. Such tensions arise in three key areas.
First, organizations found that agility and flexibility were critical to the early stages of the pandemic. Redesign of working practices and IT infrastructure required the time from ideas to action to be measured in hours and not weeks. Those adopting an agile mindset were more able to adapt to the volatile circumstances. Yet, many organizations new to agile approaches now find that their teams are struggling to cope with the seeming lack of discipline and new-found responsibilities agile techniques require.
The hard truth about agile and innovative cultures is that they are very disciplined, require a strong base of measurement, and force individuals and teams into open, honest (and frequently, uncomfortable) discussions about progress and performance. Many are only now waking up to the implications this has for their role and actions. More is needed to address serious misalignment within decision-making processes, incentive mechanisms, time management systems, skills development programmes, and so on.
Second, the last few years has rightly raised questions about the role of businesses in society beyond the need to maximize profit. In particular, sustainability has become central to many company strategies. They increasingly discuss and report their impact on the environment, actively engage in debates about ways to reduce harmful emissions, and willingly highlight choices between profitability and longer-term sustainable actions. However welcome these moves, we now see that this is too narrow a view of sustainability. It is important to also focus attention on the sustainability of our people.
The past few months have been very difficult for workers facing the demands and uncertainties of living and working through the pandemic. Several people predict a major mental health challenge as workers struggle to deal with balancing many different concerns in the workplace and at home. The intensity of efforts to maintain businesses in the face of the current crisis may well be having the opposite effect to what was intended: increasing instability of the workforce that runs the business.
Thirdly, companies have increasingly recognized that IT continuity is essential to business success. The decade-old comment that “software is eating the world” has resulted in major investments in software delivery pipelines that accelerate design, development, and delivery of software into production (known as “DevOps”). Companies now boast about how frequently changes to their software infrastructure can be deployed.
However, the current crisis has highlighted that accelerating the pace of change in new software is not the primary goal. The need is to tie those changes into business objectives to create a value stream that synchronizes the business and operations elements of the organization. Continuous integration and continuous deployment are essential. But their value is greatly amplified when they are aligned to the shifting business context. Simplification of the value stream is essential with visibility into software delivery tied to equivalent visibility and alignment of business delivery.
These three insights form a basis for how organizations can operate effectively as we face the year ahead. From a digital technology perspective, the pandemic has accelerated deployment of new tools and platforms, and refocused digital transformation efforts. However, perhaps a bigger challenge now remains: How we build on the initial successes that got us through the turbulence of 2020 to build an agile, sustainable, and robust working environment for the future.
Digital Economy Tidbits
Apple’s New Direction with the M1. Link.
The recent announcement by Apple that it is now beginning to produce Macs using its own custom-designed SoCs (system-on-a-chip) rather than Intel-produced chips is a big deal. But perhaps underplayed here is the implication that Apple has been able to move to a new ARM architecture and work with TSMC to produce a chip that is getting at least double the performance of Intel chips, with dramatically better battery life. Furthermore, they have shifted their operating system and all associated apps across to this new platform with no major issues. Extraordinary.
For those who want to read more about the new M1 architecture, the best description I have seen comes from AnandTech. Hardly recognizable for those of us who started with microcoding on RISC architectures.
The Digital Revolution: Eight technologies that will change health and care. Link.
A very useful updated report from the Kings Fund looks at digital technology in healthcare. It includes quite a lot of examples and discussion on tech for healthcare with a focus in 8 areas:
- Smartphones and wearables
- At-home or portable diagnostics
- Smart or implantable drug delivery mechanisms
- Digital therapeutics and immersive technologies
- Genome sequencing
- Artificial intelligence
- Robotics and automation
- The connected community
The UK National Data Strategy. Link.
In September 2020 the UK Government issued its National Data Strategy for consultation with a clear aim:
It seeks to harness the power of data to boost productivity, create new businesses and jobs, improve public services and position the UK as the forerunner of the next wave of innovation.
The strategy is based around 4 key pillars:
- Pillar 1 Foundations: ensuring data is fit for purpose
- Pillar 2 Skills: data skills for a data-driven economy and data-rich lives
- Pillar 3 Availability: ensuring data is appropriately accessible
- Pillar 4 Responsibility: driving safe and trusted use of data
Subsequent discussion from a number of groups, including the Ada Lovelace Institute and the Open Data Institute (ODI) have addressed these areas through commentary, workshops, and conversations. A great summary of many of the issues they raised can be found in the recent report by ODI:
And Pillar 4 is being addressed in depth by the Ada Lovelace Institute, as described here:
Take a look and provide your thoughts back to UK Government by responding online before 2nd December 2020.