I’m a couple of months into looking at the role of digital in the transformation of professional services organizations, and whilst I wouldn’t be as naive to say that the fog is rising, I’m at least starting to make sense of some shapes and patterns in the murk.
There are many companies that say that their staff are their most important asset. It’s as much of a business truism as “our customers are at the heart of everything we do”. But in a professional services firm it’s more relevant than in most because to a great extent the people are the product. And if one is the get the most out of an organization in which its people are the core value proposition, it strikes me that the key to unlocking opportunities comes not from some clever R&D team, or a Digital Guru pontificating about the future – it comes from fostering a culture of makers across the entire place.
What do I mean by that? Well, with the ways in which technology can be used and adapted, far better that the right tools, skills and support to build things are given to the people who know the work of the organization, than trying to get third parties to build them on their behalf.
This isn’t a call for everyone to be taught to code. Far from it – with simple to use platforms in the consumer world, from online spreadsheets to £30 internet-enabled power switches, combined with simple platforms to glue them together (services like http://www.ifttt.com or http://www.zapier.com) anyone these days can build a working prototype of just about anything. If you have a business idea, with a bit of a prod in the right direction (much of this is about knowing who to ask about what you don’t know) you can build it. Or at least you can build something that looks enough like what you are trying to do to test the concept.
Building a business of makers isn’t going to be easy. Organizations are geared for the consumption of technology in very set ways. The way they are expected to govern technology and data is even more restrictive. But we need to make distinctions about what we are doing and what the likely outcomes may be. Not all technology should be created equal.
I saw a slide from a presentation at the LEF event last week that struck a chord. It described the passage of technology innovation and development as passing through three keys stages: Toy, Disruption and Obvious.
At the Toy stage, a new technology is a gimmick, a novelty. People quite rightly point fingers and ask “What’s the point of that?”. The answer is we don’t really know. The toy stage of technology is a bit like mountain climbing – we do it because they’re there.
But the curiosity and experimentation and play that is required at the Toy stage is an important capability that more people need to develop to wrest control of technology in organizations from old-fashioned technology structures. Without playing with things, you won’t have the capacity to make sense of the next stage – Disruption.
Disruption is when it’s possible to start seeing the possibilities that new technologies have to create change. This is where iterative, experimental approaches come into their own. It’s also a time when an organization needs to manage a portfolio of small projects to see which experiments work, and to stop investing time in those that don’t. Ideas come come from anywhere in an organization. A maker culture can bring ideas to prototype quickly.
The Obvious stage is where we look back in hindsight. The Internet is now obvious, but through much of the 1990s that wasn’t the case. Today smartphones are obvious in our personal lives, but still much of Enterprise technology sees them at best as disruptive. When you get to the Obvious stage, you are much closer to a world of traditional technology management approaches. Everyone is doing it, so you can know what you want, specify it, procure it and release it.
A business full of makers will be curious to play with toys, and experimental to explore disruptive opportunities. It will also know when to switch gears and take different approaches. It will be full of experts who are digitally literate. It will be supported by digital teams, not led by them. It will be how an organization really becomes a digital organization.