In the 1980s, IT departments, likely called Data Processing back then, pioneered digital transformation. Manual processes, such as tracking inventory and work orders on cards or keeping customer records, moved from physical paper in bins or drawers to a computer. The impetus was on storing data and calculation. Making innovative use of the data wasn’t a motivation yet. The primary goal was to make manual tasks, like knowing when to reorder components, faster and more accurate.
Computers challenged decades-old processes, but they didn’t threaten jobs. In fact, looking to even small Data Processing departments—planners and salespeople, clerks and managers—alike would perceive employment growth. Young people, often with little industry experience, brought new skills into the organization. They taught the organization how to use computers and the organization taught them about healthcare, advertising, manufacturing, mining, or any other industries where the two groups found themselves crafting alliances.
The roots of digital transformation start in these unfamiliar alliances between technology staff and the functions and lines of business within every organization.
It wasn’t long before most numerical data that once filled rooms full of file cabinets, at least the active data, was stored on a computer. Over the next few years, computers became more powerful, gained more storage, and eventually started capturing textural and image data in meaningful ways.
But as the more sophisticated computers arrived, eventually being joined by the democratizing influence of the personal computer, the initial assumptions about computers started to look archaic. Centralized IT and its mainframes gave way to many other models.
And as the business use of computing matured, so too did the approach to the development and deployment of software. Methodologies, languages, and deployment models emerged, succeeded, retired—and were replaced.
I don’t want to go into an entire history of computing, but it is important to note that digital transformation, is not new. Digital transformation happened the first time a computer was injected into an existing process. Digital transformation started small, but it now underpins all of IT. In many ways, digital transformation is what agriculture is to farming.
Where farming can be small and intimate, even if it uses sophisticated tools, agriculture is an interconnected ecosystem that leverages science in the cultivation of land for crops and livestock, for maintaining the readiness of the land, and the selling of products at scale. The transformation of farming into agriculture started over 100,000 years ago, and it continues to evolve. Farming produces food for people to eat. Agriculture transformed civilization. Digital transformation, while only several decades old, is the framework in which business exists: not a project, not a budget item, not a set of technologies or capabilities, or something you hire out. Digital transformation is the job.
Digital transformation is the ongoing interplay between technology capabilities and options, and business needs. Each business must look at the landscape of current technologies, practices and capabilities and ask what will best help it overcome its strategic challenges, aid in its navigation of the market, make it attractive to talent and investors, open its goods and services to new markets, and help it manage costs.
Business strategy and vision state what an organization intends to do and how it intends to do it. Digital transformation acts as the roiling ocean of possible approaches to achieve those goals.
In the opening paragraphs of this post, I outlined a few transformations in early data processing. There is no indication of stability in the current approaches to the use of digital technology in business. Client-Sever gave way to the Cloud. The Cloud is unlikely the penultimate expression of computing for business—and even if it is, the computers, and the languages used to represent algorithms and processes, will continue to change. Digital transformation is a kaleidoscope that transforms with each twist. Each rearrangement creates a new pattern that combines legacy with emergent technologies and practices.
Digital transformation is persistent. It may have a roadmap, but the roadmap lives in a world of reinvention—and like actual roadmaps, it must reflect changes in the landscape. Old roads disappear, new roads arrive, public transit lines overlay and intersect, small streets become large thoroughfares.
The role of IT, and of the Chief Information Officers (CIOs) who lead them, is not to perform digital transformation, but to lead organizations through it, to navigate transformations on the way to the next state. Digital transformation encompasses dozens of concepts and hundreds of technologies. Because of that complexity, the most important skill for IT today may be paying attention: paying attention to what internal customers need, what external customers want, and what tools exist to meet those needs. Attention becomes the primary expertise. Lose focus and the ever-churning world of business and technology, government and consumers, makes knowledge obsolete at an ever-faster pace.
Being data-driven, and using analytics—those are table stakes now. Without tools to help you pay attention, you can’t pay attention well enough. The same goes for collaboration technology. Networks pay better attention than individuals. Scatter and frustrate the network across a plethora of collaboration tools, and attention also scatters.
As I reflect on digital transformation, I share 4 to-dos that should never leave your to-do list.
– Daniel W. Rasmus
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