Many companies are going through a shift from providing analog value to also providing digital value. In other words, analog businesses are those which started with tangible, physical things that they make or do in the world. Whether they have retail storefronts or build automobiles on an assembly line, most businesses with tangible goods started without digital value in mind—value which is created primarily on or around data, rather than physical things. These businesses aren't blind—they know that there is a new layer of business around software and technology—but they're not always sure how to make the leap to digital value. In that transition from a tangible business to one which also has software products and services embedded in everything they do, some big cultural changes need to happen, and some deeply-held worldviews and mindsets need to shift. That transition is much more complicated for a long-established a company than one which arose in the technology field, like a software company.
Beyond Disruptors and the Disrupted
There are companies out there that know something big is coming. We often call them the adaptors, in contrast to the ‘disruptors’ or ‘disrupted’ spoken of so often. While they may have started in the analog space and had enormous success there, they choose to send scouts to see what is on the horizon. These scouts come back and tell them what the ‘disruptors’ from Silicon Valley or other faraway lands may be coming with. Instead of being caught off-guard, they are doing what they can to be prepared—especially where they can take advantage of their considerable momentum, and human and financial resources. Before this happens, keen members of those organizations sense that something is happening—a rumbling in the ground—but can’t quite describe it. There may not yet be a language within the firm or the industry to discuss coming changes properly, to really create new partnerships and adjust strategy to be ready. So a big part of our work is helping people find language to describe what’s going on. A big part of that is helping to translate the technology issues, the cultural issues, and the legal or regulatory issues—all these different pieces that coalesce to be part of a larger shift.
Whose Job is Digital Transformation?
A great example is the automotive industry. A group of engineers in a large automaker could plan around a specific technology, like radar sensors in cars. Meanwhile, brand and marketing departments might talk about the connected car from the perspective of increasing positive ‘touchpoints’ with a customer. Production-focused parts of the company might talk about the evolution of the factory and how robots are to be integrated and quality improved—while union leaders will necessarily focus on jobs which will change or even end. Who, amongst all of that automaker’s people, is looking at the overall shift in automobility—the opportunity to create a new platform for mobility rather than just cars produced via factories and sold on dealer lots? This kind of thinking requires looking at a whole number of variables to make sure that we touch all the teams, technologies and resources that would be affected by those kind of changes.
Sometimes companies need a second set of eyes on the horizon to see things they may not be looking for. Predicting the future is an imperfect business, and no one group will have the right answers. Even leading digital-first firms—major tech companies—hire external firms to look at things one might think they would have already thought through, like what will happen in public policy vis-a-vis innovation, or how changing technology landscapes affect the way that people think of themselves as citizens. But smart companies often want a second perspective. It's important to include people with backgrounds in anthropology, ethics, and sociology—alongside those with backgrounds in innovation consulting and technology. All of these pieces to help bring stories from outside the organization—at or beyond the edges of its networks—back to the core of the organization’s decision makers. This invariably starts a conversation about the future, and so the next step is bringing the questions and ideas of those decision makers back out to the edges of their networks in an effort to help customers, employees, partners and the public at large all better understand each other and what implications there might be for the introduction of new technologies in the workplace and culture at large.