The business guide to technology disruption

Whether all businesses have come to recognize it or not, the tidal wave of technological change that has swept over popular culture in recent years has also fundamentally altered the terrain that organizations must navigate. No business has been immune from the disruption that advances in mobile and social have created on their existing business models, but the impact on IT may be even greater than some realize. 
Written by 
Kevin Fox
Enterprise Architecture Leader

Systems of Enablement

As recently as a few years ago, this transformation was described as a change in focus from Systems of Record, responsible for tracking and managing the transactions that define a business, to Systems of Engagement that support the interactions and collaborations that propel it forward. In reality, however, the change has been even more dramatic, introducing Systems of Enablement that allow both consumers and businesses to go beyond enhanced interaction to new levels of achievement, altogether. 

Consumers have become accustomed to using devices of increasing sophistication and personalization to access services from a variety of sources in complex workflows that allow them to accomplish things neither they nor the service providers could have envisioned even a few years ago. In this mode, technology becomes the medium through which a user gets things done — and perhaps talks about what they did — and the business is expected to provide services that facilitate both. Systems of Enablement, thus, are less likely to control an entire interaction with a user; instead, they must support many different goals and fit into a variety of workflows to reach the widest possible audience. 

Unfortunately for those who would read the tea leaves, the forces that propel the type of sweeping change that has brought Systems of Enablement to bear are much easier to recognize in retrospect than to predict, especially when they include such notoriously unstable elements as the fads of popular culture. There is no easy way to forecast what the next big thing will be. The one thing that can be stated with certainty about the future of Systems of Enablement, though, is that they will need to constantly adapt to accommodate the advancement of technology and the vagaries of global society.

Float like a butterfly and sting like a bee

It is this need to support ongoing, perhaps radical, change that presents the greatest challenge for IT in most businesses. In the not-so-distant past, IT largely treated change as instability, and many of the methodologies and practices it employed were specifically targeted at limiting the amount and cost of technology change to the organization. Hardware and software platforms that were expected to last for decades and application release cycles measured in quarters, if not years, were just a few indications of how IT treated change as the enemy.

Unfortunately, after making a significant investment to develop an organizational infrastructure and mentality to protect against change, many IT shops now face the frightening realization, whether driven by industry buzz or business demands, that the enemy is within the gates and may even be ruling the kingdom. Similarly, the business finds itself on the verge of the very nightmare that it has always dreaded: pouring hard-earned money down a hole chasing after the latest technology fad.

It is in this context that IT must take up a different mantra. Like an up-and-coming heavyweight contender of the '60s, who broke the mold of the typical slow-footed slogger, it is time to “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.” IT can no longer afford to make long-term commitments to any technology. Instead, it must be prepared to adopt new technologies quickly (float) while getting maximum impact out of the investment (sting). Only in this way can the organization hope to remain competitive as Systems of Enablement become the norm, rather than the exception.

Changing the Culture

Fortunately, the technology industry, itself, has been in the process of adapting to this new reality for some time. Technologies such as cloud computing, data analytics and artificial intelligence, along with approaches like open source software, microservice architecture, flexible API’s, agile development, application lifecycle management and DevOps, serve to provide a foundation from which IT can effectively launch out into the maelstrom of disruptive technology. Interestingly, the common factor in all of these is that they are not solely technical solutions, but rather a transformation of how IT supports the business.

The latest technologies and industry best practices are not sufficient, however, to overcome the undertow of an organizational management that views technology as separate from their core mission. If the business press is to be believed, more and more businesses have begun to realize that every company is a technology company. This, in fact, is the true disruption of technology, for it highlights the need for cultural change both within IT and across the organization.

The specifics of how to bring about such a cultural transformation are beyond the scope of this article; however, it is worth mentioning a few considerations that will help to set reasonable expectations:

  • Look in the mirror first. Bear in mind that every organization has the IT that it deserves. The mindset of the organization and the incentives it puts in place are reflected in how IT management and staff respond to the challenges they face. For example, IT can hardly be expected to respond quickly to operational business imperatives if they are required to primarily plan and budget on the basis of capital expenditures.  There is no way to effectively change an IT culture without first changing the culture of the organization it serves.
  • Be proactive in vision but organic in implementation. In many organizations, “Phase 2” has been synonymous with “ain’t never gonna happen”. Strangely, this reality leads to conflicting responses, depending on the organization: either nothing is planned that can’t be immediately implemented or nothing is done until it has been planned to the nth degree. Neither of these is likely to give the business what they really want, especially in the context of Systems of Enablement. Contemporary approaches instead encourage stakeholders to think big while implementers build small. That is, the vision, whether a technical system or a cultural change, is implemented in small pieces, based on a prioritization of what provides the greatest value, with constant feedback from the results to continually refine both the methods and the goal. This allows the organization as a whole to learn from experience and to quickly incorporate what they learn into future choices. This is the core principle at the heart of “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee”.
  • Choose compatible partners. Few organizations are able to fully provide for their own technology needs, so, for most, working with technology partners is the norm, not the exception. When undertaking the type of cultural change outlined here, it is important that those partners help to promote, not retard, the process. The organization should evaluate whether a partner has the breadth and maturity to help change the way IT and business approach technology or if the organization will actually be paying for the partner to undergo their own transformation. The business should be aware that as their expectations change for IT, they must also change for who, when, why and how the organization engages outside assistance with technology challenges.

The changes to the technology landscape brought about by mainstream adoption of digital innovation present tantalizing opportunities for organizations willing to adapt. There is a real danger, though, for those that think they can keep up with the speed of disruption through business as usual.

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