Transformation is an elegant word and an inspiring concept. But it’s not easy. It requires strain and struggle, birth pangs and reiterative cycles. Digital tools are vital.
Digitisation has fundamentally changed the world in the last few decades. In any industry or field of human endeavour today, ‘disruption’ is now assumed to be in digital form, or to derive from technologies which translate digital capability into useful or innovative applications.
Very soon, any company with ambitions of world class competitiveness will need to envision a workforce of highly motivated and skilled talent operating in a largely automated and digitised environment – even side-by-side with robots – as part of a ceaselessly adaptive learning organisation. People will be liberated to apply thinking and creativity to tasks, and be expected to perform them at an exceptional standard because they will be enabled by technologies, some of which – such as artificial intelligence – are not yet fully understood.
Yet as recently as 70 years ago, computers didn’t exist. A fledgling device was invented by mathematics professor Alan Turing in 1936-37, and derivations used in a now famous but then secretive episode of the Second World War: the mission to crack the ‘Enigma’ codes gearing and implementing Germany’s military and naval strategies. The early Turing Machine and all Turing’s data collection and codebreaking skills were instrumental in the Allies’ managing to turn the tide of the war, and probably saved millions of lives by shortening it by an estimated two years. If ever there was the need for high performance under huge stress, this was one of the first instances of the power of digital enablement.
The expectations surrounding performance, too, have fundamentally changed. Just two generations ago, most people entered the world of work anticipating a single, lifelong career, and the hope that one permanent employer would usher them through to retirement. But the Millennial generation – born between 1978 and 2000 – will soon comprise around half of the world’s workforce, and they have significantly different expectations and ambitions. Employer organisations, too, are now managed by a larger number of executives in this cohort, and they drive a different talent paradigm. Greater rewards, more autonomy and flexibility, stimulating challenges and improved corporate ethics are balanced by the other end of the scale which demands more creativity, collaboration, results orientation and accountability.
And yet, it is also increasingly difficult to pin down and to achieve with consistency. Competitiveness is heightened. Complexity and uncertainty has extrapolated. Our ‘busy-ness’ at work is a blur of tasks and interfaces, a juggling of the mandatory functions and deliverables with the scope creep of constant learning and upskilling.
Businesses, the C-Suite, managers and employees all face accelerating societal changes and as a result, the expectations and demands of all stakeholders are in flux. Better, smarter, more efficient – performance is a dynamic necessitating rapid execution of robust decisions in harmony with rigorous corporate governance principles and best management practices.
The promise of digital bridges these myriad requirements. Business leaders routinely acknowledge that the single most important transformation tool is digital enablement. Big Data and analytics capabilities, real-time Internet-of-Things (IoT) interoperability between information and operational technologies, and automation are just some of the digital drivers of the enterprises of today, and the future.
Businesses that prioritise emerging technology capabilities will gain huge competitive advantage. Think about how technology enables leaps in the efficiencies and innovation capabilities in manufacturing. Every world-class company today has a future-focused vision which harnesses digital capabilities to transform its business, or to keep improving, or to push the boundaries of competitiveness. A recent study on artificial intelligence (AI) adoption in the workplace modelled cumulative cashflow gains of 122%, this decade, for companies which invest rapidly, compared to just 10% for followers.
But high performance is also the striving of human ambition in other fields. Sport is a clear field of endeavour where competitors seek to eke out marginals gains using technical improvements enabled by digital technologies. If you watch even just an hour of the Tour de France cycling event on television, you can’t help noticing the earpiece communications, the fraction-of-a-second timings, the constant heart-rate monitoring as the riders edge to the red zone of their personal cardiovascular capacities. These in-situ digital technologies enable sports-men and women to push the boundaries of both their individual performance and the achievement of their team.
Or new heights in the arts. Digital enhancements have revolutionised music, and not just in the way we take for granted, namely the digital format and online distribution. Technology has spurred musicians to a vastly expanded repertoire of skills and techniques: loop pedals, synthesisers and computer equipment has effectively transposed the recording studio into live performances. And musicians’ horizons for experimentation and cross-pollination have been widened. Cocreation and collaboration have birthed hybrid genres such as afro-pop or techno-folk. Technology in this sense may not strictly have contributed to mastery, but digitisation has led directly to greater ingenuity and innovation in this form of the arts – and enhanced enrichment for us all.
It’s a given. Thriving in any aspect of enterprise or activity requires capitalising on the full spectrum of digital resources available. But the concept of an iterative quest for high performance, a striving for a legacy of success, means that we also need to strategise beyond today. What are the digital technologies of tomorrow; how will these extrapolate in a short-term horizon – and where will they lead in ten years’ time? Optimising an organisation’s use of cloud computing, radio-frequency identification (RFID) devices integrated into reporting tools for crucial parts of supply chain tracking, and social media metrics for marketing: these are sound, even advantageous now, but in a few years they will be table-stakes. How is the company planning, now, for Augmented Reality applications on its factory floors, for cognitive computing in its administrative functions, and for blockchain and drones in its procurement and logistics processes?
True transformation is not only about technology. Digital technology enablement, in all areas of our progress and endeavour, allows us to push closer to perfection. But high performance and excellence is only possible with commitment, disciplined and focused practise towards identified goals, mentorship and learning, within a program of upskilling talent, instilling the appropriate performance culture, and evolving systems and methodologies so that the overall organisation is poised to innovate. The key point is that technology applications are an invaluable enabler – the means to refine and improve all parts of the journey towards achievement.
The road to successful metamorphosis is long, but with the right approach and the appropriate digital enablers, it can be an enthralling and rewarding journey.
 ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution: Beacons of Technology and Innovation in Manufacturing’, World Economic Forum, January 2019, figure 2, page 9
Senior Partner and Managing Executive