Technology – required but not sufficient for digital transformation

Digital technology is a necessary component of digital transformation. In fact, digital transformation is only possible because of digital technology. And not only possible, but inevitable. Digital transformation isn’t something you do, it’s something that happens to you.

Digital transformation isn’t about getting better or more efficient at what you already know how to do. Yet, many organizations want exactly that, to simply “automate” the processes they already have, using these digital technologies to keep doing the same things they’ve always done in basically the same way. Online forms instead of paper forms, for example. Thinking in atoms, not bits. They think that the technology is sufficient to make them better; it helps the organization achieve some efficiencies of scale in getting done the things they’ve always gotten done. But this is not transformation.

At the same time, many employees of these organizations are concerned – and rightfully so – about what all these digital tools will mean for them. They are used to working on what is essentially an assembly line: a task passes from someone up the line to them, they do their piece of the task according to some predetermined set of rules or procedures, and then pass it down the line to the next person. Their job is to execute tasks when they’re told, in the manner in which they’re told to execute them. Input – black box – output, where the employee is a figurative black box in very real danger of being replaced by a literal black box of technology.

Digital technology is a necessary component of digital transformation, but is not sufficient to achieve transformation. Digital transformation is about becoming better and more effective at identifying and executing outcomes you didn’t even know were possible, and that requires a change in mindset, a change in culture. Dare I say, a change in purpose. From “we’re going to be the best at doing this thing thought up in the past” to “we’re going to come up with the best ideas and products ever.”

Otherwise your organization, like its employees, runs the very real risk of becoming a commodity itself, that figurative blackbox that is eventually, and inevitably, replaced by a literal black box.

Thinking in bits (redux)

A key to any organization’s survival of the ongoing digital reformation will be their ability to break free from the deeply ingrained thinking in terms of atoms and start thinking in bits.

I first came across the idea of thinking in bits in Nicholas Negroponte‘s 1995 book Being digital. In the book, Negroponte talks about the limitations, the cost, of moving information around as atoms – paper books, CDs, DVDs, snail mail, you get the idea – and how information would soon be converted from atoms to bits. The immediately obvious implication is that it now becomes essentially free to move and share information as bits.

The less obvious, but much more important, implication is that bits change the way you can think about the information. How you can manipulate and repurpose the information. How you can do things that were impossible with the information locked up in atoms. The obvious applications have come to fruition. Email instead of snail mail. Music downloads instead of CDs, and now streaming instead of downloads. The same with video.

And yet…

And yet, the way this digitized information, these bits, is handled is still in many ways tied to the way atoms were handled. The medium has changed, but the process remains the same. Some of this, such as in the music and movie industries, is purely for commercial reasons. They are shipping in bits, but they are not thinking in bits.

Even from a creative perspective, as opposed to the commercial, this thinking in atoms prevents many from seeing new possibilities for providing engaging and individual experiences to their customers. For example, consider how labels distribute music, how they release the same tracks in the same order on both CD and on services like iTunes or Google Play. This is thinking in atoms at its finest (worst?).

Imagine if they were thinking in bits instead. They could offer an “album” that includes songs from the setlist the band played in your town, or edit the songs at the disc-breaks on multi-disc albums so they didn’t fade out / fade in. For individual song downloads from live recordings they could edit the track so you didn’t catch the introduction to the next song at the end of the song you’re listening too.

The same is true, albeit for different reasons, inside many organizations. Yes, nearly everything is in bits, stored on shared drives, in Sharepoint or email, on an enterprise social network or whatever system your organization uses to “manage” content.

And yet….

And yet most of these bits are locked up in mere digital representations of atoms. Again, working in bits but not thinking in bits.

Of course, 20+ years after Being Digital things have changed quite a bit. Many companies have leveraged thinking in bits to their advantage. Tax preparation software companies come to mind: the process of collecting the necessary information is designed to meet the needs of the person entering the information while the output of the information is in the format (atom-based) necessary for submission to the appropriate agencies. (Sadly, my guess is that those agencies still have atom-based processes to actually handle the information.)

And technology has evolved radically. Blockchain comes to mind. But even there, in a highly thinking in bits based process of transactions, most people’s attention is drawn to the most atom-based aspect of the blockchain – it’s use as a currency.

Digital transformation is not, as some people think, something you do. It is, rather, something that is happening, something that is happening to you. Whether you want it to or not. Thinking in bits is your key to not just surviving the transformation, but to leading the way.

Imagine no employers, no employees too

In my June 2008 post The evolution of the employee-employer relationship I wrote the following:

The challenge for organizations in this situation becomes not providing employees the training they need to carry out the company’s goals and projects, but rather providing employees with goals and projects that engage the employees and effectively use what they are learning for themselves.

This was in response to some things I had read at the time and was something of a follow-up to another post from April 2004, in which I wrote:

I’ve long believed that the prevalence of knowledge work in organizations today will (eventually) fundamentally shift the employee – employer relationship. In many ways, knowledge workers will come to be “self-employed” in the sense that they are working to improve themselves and to make an impact on the world at large and not just within the company they happen to be “working for” at the time.

Though I haven’t written much (at all?) about this particular aspect of thinking in bits since that 2008 post, the ideas are never far from my the front of my mind. It is hard not to think along these lines as I wonder about the future of work. Not just for me, but for my kids, and for the people with whom I work every day. Even within an organization, there is a certain amount of this, where HR acts as the “agent” and the employee moves about inside the organization based as much on their own needs and desires as the organization. (If, that is, they are lucky enough to work in an organization that “gets it”.)

b9fhxmdwI closed that 2004 post with the thought, “This obviously raises some interesting questions for organizations….

Some interesting questions that Stephen DeWitt is working on answering. Here’s a description of what DeWitt is doing as CEO of Work Market, from the article/interview A Total Rethink of How Work Should Work:

In short, Work Market hopes to instrument a wholesale rethinking of how work gets done in our society — from a world of traditional corporate employment to a world where every skilled worker can act as an enterprise of one.

Or, to look at it another way, where an organization consists primarily of management and the workforce is “on demand”. Where the focus is not on building, growing, and sustaining a large organization but on doing the work, creating value, getting shit done. Where each member of the team can contribute their expertise – whether it be financial, management, technical – and all benefit from the arrangement. On their own terms.

More flash team than gig economy, where the labor is not a commodity but where each participant competes based on skills, past projects, reputation, etc etc. All those things that in the past would have led to promotions and raises and bonuses will now lead to more work, higher rates, and more choice in the work you accept.

Obviously, there is much more to it or it would already be the norm. There are examples of where it is working and organizations who are using it, but it will be many years before it is more widespread. And, of course, the transition will not come without pain, without costs, without some collateral damage to the workforce and organizations who are not able, or interested, in making the change.

Are you ready to be an “enterprise of one”?

Design Better Forms — – User Experience Design

Whether it is a signup flow, a multi-view stepper, or a monotonous data entry interface, forms are one of the most important components of digital product design. This article focuses on the common dos and don’ts of form design. Keep in mind that these are general guideline and there are exceptions to every rule.

Source: Design Better Forms — – User Experience Design

h/t @jcantroot