The digital economy
The digital economy is not primarily about technology, nor is it just about the economy. Yes, it is being shaped and enabled by increasingly significant and rapid technological change. And, yes, it will have significant economic impact. But it is much more than that. It is part of a broader digital revolution. One in which, as in the case of the industrial revolution, we will see seismic shifts not just in technology, but in the nature of our lives, our work, our enterprises – large and small, public and private, and our societies. A shift that will not just change the nature of products and services, and how they are developed and delivered, but also how we govern and manage our lives, work, enterprises and societies.
Technology is becoming embedded in everything we as individuals, enterprises and societies do, and, indeed, we are increasingly becoming embedded in everything technology does. If we are to deliver on the promise of the digital revolution, we have to acknowledge that the way we have governed and managed IT in the past has proven woefully inadequate, and that continuing on this path will be a huge impediment to delivering on that promise. Governance of IT has been a subject of much discussion over the last two decades. Unfortunately, most of the discussion has focused on the technology, the cost of technology, failed IT projects, and generally questioning the value that technology and the IT function deliver to the enterprise. Despite all this discussion, not much has materially or broadly changed over the last 50 years, including:
• An all too often blind focus on the technology itself, rather than the change – increasingly significant and complex change – that technology both shapes and enables;
• The unwillingness of business leaders to get engaged in, and take ownership of this change – preferring to abdicate their accountability to the IT function;
• Failure to inclusively involve the stakeholders affected by the change, without whose knowledge, understanding and “buy in” failure is pretty much a foregone conclusion;
• A lack of rigour at the front-end of an investment decision, including, what is almost universally a totally ineffective business case process;
• Not actively managing for value; and
• Not managing the journey beyond the initial investment decision.
We still have what is predominately a “culture of delivery” – “build it and they will come”, rather than a “culture of value” – one that focuses on creating and sustaining value from an organization’s investments and assets.
We have been having the wrong conversation – we need to change that conversation!
Governance of “IT”
Treating IT governance as something separate from overall enterprise governance, labeling and managing investments in IT-enabled business change as IT projects, and abdicating accountability to the CIO are the root cause of the failure of so many to generate the expected payoff. Business value does not come from technology alone – technology in and of itself is simply a cost. Business value comes from the business change that technology both shapes and enables. Change of which technology is only one part – and increasingly only a small part. Technology only contributes to business value when complementary changes are made to the business – including increasingly complex changes to the organizational culture, the business model, and the operating model, as well as to relationships with customers and suppliers, business processes and work practices, staff skills and competencies, reward systems, organizational structures, physical facilities etc. Ultimately, it is people’s intelligent and innovative use of the information captured, organized, distributed, visualized and communicated by technology that creates and sustains value. This is not a technology issue – it is a business issue.
Much of the discussion around the digital economy today is on improving the customer experience – as indeed it should be, although we have been saying the same for decades with, at best, mixed success. We will come nowhere close to achieving this unless we put equal focus on our people, and rethinking how we govern, manage and organize for the digital economy such that we maximize the return on our information and our people.
Surviving and thriving in the digital economy is not an IT governance issue, it is an enterprise governance issue. Successfully navigating the digital economy requires that we change how we govern, lead and manage our enterprises – including, but certainly not limited to IT.
What needs to change?
In work I have been doing with Professor Joe Peppard at the European School of Management and Technology in Berlin, we have identified 8 things that business leaders, starting with the CEO, need to do. These are:
1. Don’t see IT as something separate from your core business – technology today is embedded in, and an integral part of most, if not all parts of your business processes.
2. Don’t focus on the technology alone – focus on the value that can be created and sustained through the business change that technology both shapes and enables.
3. Do recognize that you are ultimately accountable for the overall value created by all business change investments – and ensuring that accountability for the realisation of business benefits anticipated from each investment is appropriately delegated to, and accepted by, other executives and managers.
4. Do demand rigorous analysis of every proposed business change investment, whether or not IT is involved. Ensure that you and your team know and can clearly define expected outcomes, that there is a clear understanding of how value is going to be achieved, that all relevant stakeholders have bought in to the required changes, and that they are capable of making or absorbing them and delivering on the expected outcomes.
5. Do recognize that the business case is the most powerful tool that you have at your disposal to manage business change investments – insist on complete and comprehensive business cases, including desired outcomes, benefits, costs and risks, and clear explanation of how each benefit will be achieved with unambiguously assigned accountabilities, supported by relevant metrics.
6. Do recognize that benefits don’t just happen and rarely happen according to plan – outcomes and plans will change – don’t think business case approval is the end of the story. Mandate that the business case be used as the key operational tool to “manage the journey”, updated to reflect relevant changes, and regularly reviewed.
7. Do know if and when it’s time to stop throwing good money after bad, or when there are better uses for the money and “pull the plug.”
8. If your CIO doesn’t “get” the above points, and hasn’t already been talking to you about them, get one who does and will!
Enterprise governance must evolve beyond a model rooted in a culture of delivery (of technical capabilities) to one based on a culture of value – creating and sustaining value from investments and assets. In the context of IT, this means recognizing that we are no longer dealing with “IT projects”, but with increasingly complex programmes of organizational change.
The most important aspect of governance is leadership. Effective governance in the digital economy requires that leaders truly lead – moving beyond tactical leadership to strategic and transformational leadership. Understanding and taking ownership of the organizational, cultural and behavioural change that will be required to succeed in the digital economy – change that starts with the leaders themselves. We also need to get away from the cult of the leader to a culture of pervasive leadership. As Joel Kurtzman says in his book, Common Purpose, leaders need to move beyond the traditional “command and control” model to establishing a ”common purpose” and creating a “feeling of ‘we’ among the members of their group, team or organization”. This will require leaders who can “park”, or at least manage their egos, break down silos, and really engage with and empower all employees – fostering leadership across and at all levels in the organization. It will also require a dynamic, sense and respond approach to enterprise governance – one that is focused on value, while balancing rigour with agility. Only then will the full potential value of IT-enabled change in the digital economy be realized. The technology exists to support this today – what is lacking is the leadership mindset, will and capability make the change.
There is certainly not for a lack of proven value management practices. Since The Information Paradox was published, there has been an ever-growing proliferation of books, frameworks, methods, techniques and tools around the topic. The issue is the lack of serious and sustained adoption of them. The real challenge is one of overcoming the “knowing – doing gap”, as described by Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton in their book of the same name. We know what to do, and the knowledge is available on how to do it. Yet, so far, there has simply been little or no appetite for, or commitment to the behavioural change required to get it done, and stick with it. This has to change!
As I said in my previous post, this will not be easy to do – very little involving organization, people and power is. However, the cost in money wasted and, more importantly, benefits and value lost, eroded or destroyed is appalling. It’s way past time to move beyond word to action. For enterprises to survive, let alone thrive in the digital economy, and for the potential individual, community and societal benefits of the digital economy to be realized, the status quo is not an option! To quote General Erik Shinseki, a former Chief of Staff of the US Army, “If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less!“