Are we asking ourselves the hard digital questions?

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Gianni Giacomelli

Business Leader, Digital Solutions

May 17, 2016 - I can't help but wonder lately if many of us are suffering from what may best be called, “Acute Digital Delusion," a new form of ADD. Despite knowing significant technological change is coming, those afflicted believe they needn't change in preparation for the inevitable.

Findings from a new Pew Research Poll suggest epidemic scale has been reached. In an article titled, Public Predictions for Future of Workforce Automation, Pew reported, “A majority of Americans predict that within 50 years, robots and computers will do much of the work currently done by humans – but few workers expect their own jobs or professions to experience substantial impacts."

More precisely, the Pew poll found 65% of respondents (nearly two-thirds) expected technology to do much of the work we do within 50 years. Yet 80% also said they don't expect that transformative tech to change how they work.

For most of the people who believe both that their current job will continue to exist for the rest of their working days, and that most current jobs will cease to exist a half-century from now, an unkind future awaits. Granted, a few may hold jobs impervious to change. (My barber and dentist should be ok.) But what of the rest? Are they sharing in a worrisome mass delusion?

I've seen what that looks like up close. Too often, I've talked with people whose response to the idea of reimagining their business operation begins and ends with, “We've never done it like this." They fail to take the next step of admitting “it's never worked doing it like this." Except that in an era when Uber answers my complaints within seconds with a customized, human-looking yet totally AI-written email, we better be ready to be surprised. Natural language processing and generation (NLP/NLG) are technologies that – to paraphrase A.C. Clark – have become so sophisticated as to be indistinguishable from magic.

As a recent critique by ISG Insights shows, many of the New ADD learning disabled are embracing a flawed school of thought that lets them trade one delusion for another. It teaches that by accepting uncritically a “fail fast" method of technological discovery, over time we can serendipitously converge toward the future.

But accepting this logic is like blindly driving 3 mph on Sunday – all the while quickly bumping into every curb to confirm your bearings – and then, on Monday, expecting to be moving down a Highway to Tomorrow just as quickly and fuel-efficiently as your competitors are. Or as ISG Insights explained, “The potential negative effects of Digital Business/digital transformation failure are downplayed using the 'fast failure' attitude, which implies that the Cloud-engendered, relative low cost and high speed of individual trials and initiatives minimizes the overall cost and related issues."

ISG added ominously, “if enterprise investment and reliance continue at the current pace, and… current widespread provider, channel, and IT leadership uncertainty continues….It's going to get real, real soon."

This state of affairs is not just about individuals or relatively finite groups of people. A recently released three-year study done by the Genpact Research Institute finds many companies are at their lowest “Volatility and Adaptation" point since 2013. In the last 12 months, these companies appear not to be changing visibly, or where change is visible, it isn't coming fast enough. Often they look to benefit from markets focused in areas that, relatively speaking, seem to offer stability and certainty. Yet to anyone who's listened to the Economist's 2016 market outlook podcast, Cocktail of Risks, the very belief that there's a safe play to make probably sounds misguided.

My view: Put some real time aside – both yours and your team's – to learn what digitization can do technically. Even more importantly embrace transformation frameworks that can help harness digital's full promise, from design thinking, to good old strategy and change management, to agile methods, to Lean. Lean Digital, among other approaches, assesses an enterprise's digital transformation potential in a manner that looks well beyond how best to pick the low-hanging – and widely over-plucked – fruits of the front office.