Putting Real Meaning into Digital Transformation: IT Essentials
Putting Real Meaning into Digital Transformation: IT Essentials
Properly implemented digital transformation strategies are the difference between Amazon-like company growth or obsoletism.
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If you understand that data is your most important asset, and you ensure its security, availability, and scalability to gain its full capabilities, congratulations; you're on your way to digital transformation. That's the real meaning behind "being digital," which hearkens back to Nicholas Negroponte's book of the same name. You have to recognize that the value lies in the "bits, not the atoms."
Take the music industry for example. Form, such as vinyl, cassette, CD—the atoms—became irrelevant with the rise of the bits, that is, streaming. The value is the song, not the album. That business transformation took a long time, but also seemed to happen overnight. Companies can't afford to sleep on a digital strategy, and those who think they are "there" should realize there's no end point. What comes after digital transformation is more digital transformation, so you better have the basics right.
The Meaning of Digital Transformation
From microcomputing to the IoT, billions of end points are feeding data repositories. And now, we can process the abundance of information with enough capacity and speed. Digital transformation involves using such data to uncover patterns that were previously obscure because of complexity or size, then generating answers that couldn't have otherwise been considered.
Amazon is a prime case of such an unexpected discovery. The apparent randomness of a single small packaged product coming in a box much too large for it is actually a calculated process, a result of the ultimate use of data.
Box sizes are tailored to the shipping container, not their contents. The containers are digitally filled with orders to ensure there is absolutely no gap in between boxes. Each box goes in a particular order—from bottom to top and back to front—to exactly fit the available space.
On the surface, this practice may seem wasteful, but what the data revealed is the opposite. A shipping container that's basically one solid mass of cardboard results in almost zero breakage in transit. The digital optimization and algorithms at work here are incredible.
In my work, digital transformation is enabling me to build new tools and combine all elements of observability. Observability, in the context of monitoring, is the overlap in the Venn diagram between metrics that are collected, log data, and tracing data.
Digital transformation allows me to manage those vast and really different types of data sets into a single understanding of the performance of my environment. This transformation begets more transformation. With such comprehensive monitoring, new realizations allow you to look at problems in a new light and solve them in new ways.
To put it another way, what separates traditional monitoring from new-school observability are the “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns.” Traditional monitoring has become incredibly adept at managing the known unknowns—knowing that a particular element exists and could break, just not knowing when and how. But without digital transformation, the unknown unknowns—not knowing if an element exists or not, let alone its current or future health—would be almost impossible to identify, let alone manage.
Though today's digital transformation involves new technology and approaches to solve business problems in new ways, it's not unlike its predecessors, from paper to internet to mobile. As evident in previous disruption, success requires the essentials be in place, in both IT and the business.
In terms of today's digital disruption, DevOps methodologies should be core to not just the IT environment, but also the corporate culture. Think continuous improvement, continuous deployment. After all, there's no such thing as an IT-only strategy. There are only business initiatives that have an IT aspect to them.
Hence, IT should know what's driving the technology requirements at the business level and, of course, the business needs to state intended outcomes. Typically, success is defined as increased revenue, cost reduction, or risk removal.
Once you've identified the intended outcome(s), determine the technical implications. Are business process changes required? Is there a lost opportunity cost, and what is it? If you do project X, it may mean eliminating project Y. What's the impact of that choice?
Certainly, the business must be fully committed. Other projects that do not support the transformation IT is trying to achieve cannot be permitted. If you're trying to make sure all orders are digitally entered, for example, another department can't be focused on re-alphabetizing all the paper records.
Robust monitoring is also essential. You can't improve on what you don't know, but you will also only improve what you choose to monitor. Be thoughtful about monitoring. Make sure to understand the why, then ensure you are pointing toward the what in order to get to the how.
When to Go On; When to Give Up
Digital transformation is perpetual. As new technology emerges, increased capabilities arrive. With this in mind, you have to be willing to walk away from any technology if it becomes obsolete in the middle of your work with it. Remaining committed to the technology instead of the improvement process is a mistake. The chatbot of today may not wind up being the customer service of tomorrow.
Take the quantum computing announcement Microsoft made last year. How exactly it will be used and in what cases is unclear. Certainly, there's a chance that, in 18 months, what we call computers now will be superseded by what's coming.
Abandoning one technology in favor of another doesn't have to mean turning the ship around entirely, but it does mean course correction. Be honest and logical about the tools supporting your digital transformation. After all, you don't start a technical project always knowing exactly how it will end. Allow unanticipated learning to inform decisions, and adapt your approach accordingly.
How many cans can a Coca-Cola supplier make in one day with 18 employees on the factory floor? And how many bottles can just one person fill per minute in a certain bottling location? The answers (in these specific cases) are 3.6 million and 1,800.
These unbelievable outcomes don't happen because of a super-fast conveyor belt. They are born from digitally-transformed operations. Digital transformation means we can optimize human interaction where humans are needed, and optimize automation where automation is best used.
Of course, Amazon and Coca-Cola are edge cases. Most companies don't need to get to such levels. But edge cases show where you can go. With the IT essentials in place, digital possibilities are unlimited.
Opinions expressed by DZone contributors are their own.