Digital disruption: flavour of the month?

DIGITAL TRANSFORMATION  STATUS MESSAGE

If you’ve had any involvement in IT over the last couple of years you’ll know that digital transformation and digital disruption are flavour of the month: the literature abounds with predictions of cataclysmic upheavals to the established order. Examples of disruptors (Uber and Airbnb) and dinosaurs (Kodak) are held up as poster children of the new age and as dire warnings of doom for the unprepared.

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But, hey, at the end of the day, it’s not about the technology and it’s not just about having a bright idea: digitally disrupting/transforming a large organisation is a herculean task. So increasingly attention is turning from the technology of digital disruption and transformation to the organisational aspects.

These are, for an established organisation, far more important than the technology. It can hire bright people, has the recourses to invest and, quite likely, brand recognition and an established market for end results of digital disruption. Despite these pluses, successful exploitation of digital disruption and successful digital transformation seem to elude many large organisations.

A couple of studies that came my way this week seek to address that problem, but from different perspectives. The title of a MIT Sloan Management Review research study, produced in conjunction with Deloitte University Press sums it up: “Strategy, not Technology, Drives Digital Transformation.

It makes the point that digital disruption and digital transformation have to be recognised as such and not seen as phenomena that can be corralled into projects.

“Less digitally mature organisations tend to focus on individual technologies and have strategies that are decidedly operational in focus.

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Digital strategies in the most mature organisations are developed with an eye on transforming the business.” And: “The ability to digital reimagine the business is determined in large part by a clear digital strategy supported by leaders who foster a culture able to change and invent the new.”

Trouble is, these attributes come with others that are less easy for leaders in large organisations to embrace. “Digitally maturing organisations are more comfortable taking risks than their less digitally mature peers. To make their organisations less risk averse, business leaders have to embrace failure as a prerequisite for success.” That’s OK if you are working on a more confined digital transformation, but if you really want to digitally transform the company you might have to risk the company.

The other document came from Gartner and was headlined “Gartner Survey Shows Digital Business Leaders Breaking from the Pack.” Its central contention was that "a widening gulf is forming between organisations already undertaking digital business initiatives and those only in the planning phase.”

Gartner identified a somewhat different approach to digital transformation, one that it said was popular with digital business leaders. Gartner called these “digital moments”. It defined these as “specific transient opportunities that illustrate how people, businesses and the Internet of Things interact.,” and said they were “catalysts that set in motion a series of events and actions involving a network of people, businesses and things that spans or crosses multiple industries and multiple ecosystems.”

That may or may not be a good thing. To extend the metaphor, a catalyst is something that accelerates a chemical reaction: it does not change the outcome, but simply ensures that it is achieved much faster.

In other words, digital moments can be great, but unless you have a great digital strategy they could simply accelerate a digital disaster.

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