Solving the corporate digital problem

How can corporates resist disruption and adapt to changing times? They need someone new in the boardroom…

It’s hard not to feel sorry for businesses right now – traditional ones at least. Most businesses are used to disruption as a one-shot deal. The financial markets went through a “big bang” when digital trading replaced the traditional trading pits. Publishing went through the shift from hot metal to desktop publishing. The music industry has endured the shift from physical media to digital media.

But it’s becoming ever-clearer that the digital transition is an on-going one. Digital doesn’t create a single point of disruption, but multiple waves of disruption in an on-going process. The Information Age – the post-digital age, if you prefer – is a fundamentally different business landscape where the changes are coming faster and faster.

The changes keep coming: desktop PCs, e-mail, the web, ecommerce, social media, big data, mobile, 3D printing, drones…

Whatever your business, disruption can come at you from any angle, and the only defence is to spot the changes as they come, and pivot your business to adapt. That’s hard to do. Many businesses have afield to do so. Many more will fail to do so. But that doesn’t mean you have to give up and accept defeat. It does mean you need to think about the way you manage, and, most importantly, about the way we use technology in businesses.

Most established businesses get technology very, very wrong.

And the blame lies at the door of the people in charge.

We’ve had the chief technology officer – but that was a job role all too often about managing boxes and cables. It was a job about PCs on desks, and maybe an Exchange and Blackberry server. Even worse, it was often construed as a policing role rather than a facilitation role. Its mindset was about stopping people doing anything other than what they were meant to do with their digital tools. At the time when so many businesses needed a leader on technology, they got a cop instead. What a way to crush innovation.

HR and real estate departments are about getting the people and the places you need to do business well. Why were tech departments about controlling costs and locking technology down so hard you could get more done with your own PC at home?

Increasingly, this role looks more and more irrelevant, as workers switch to using their own devices.

And then we had the chief information officer, which was, at best, a useful way of starting to adapt to the information age, and at worst a trendy new title for the old CTO. But it still misses the point. Information does not exist in a vacuum. It is created by things, stored on things and processed by things. Information on its own is a sterile, academic pursuit – businesses need information that matter to them – or their clients.

So, what do we need to move businesses into the 21st century, into the post-digital age? Well, consider the heart of the post-digital idea: when digital ceases to be interesting in itself, it’s the things you do with it that matter. You need someone to make sure that fighting with the technology becomes a thing of the past, to ensure that the tech and the software enhance business, rather than restrict it. You need someone who is so on top of the trends that the “digital” problem disappears and just becomes a business problem.

You need a Chief Digital Officer.

And that’s an idea we’ll be exploring in depth in the coming months.

Photo by Michael Coughlan, and used under a Creative Commons licence