Deconstructing the hype around digital transformation
There has been fervent buzz around digital transformation in the past decade. Using technology to improve and transform businesses was already on the ascension when I took a break from the IT industry to pursue a MBA degree because I had felt that with my background in technology a better understanding of businesses will help me add more value to the work I was doing. But in the intervening period between 2011–2012 when I was in the MBA program, technology itself underwent radical transformation. AI, Robotics, SMAC, IoT, Cryptocurrencies, Blockchain, Agile, even software programming has undergone drastic changes from that time.
As I started understanding all the new jargons, it became increasingly evident that most of what has been projected as new and disruptive innovation is only incremental innovation. My engineering college project 23 years back was based on AI so theoretically AI has been existing for a very long time. It was just a matter of how it was going to be integrated into existing technologies. Many companies were using virtual servers created using software like VMWare so it was only a matter of faster and reliable internet services to be available for virtual servers and applications to be provided over the internet thus kickstarting the Cloud phenomenon. There was humongous amount of data generated from users through their various interactions with the businesses so it was just a matter of time before businesses decided to sift through all that data and find out what users like and dislike and how customer engagement can be improved and increased. Thus analytics was born. Rudimentary social media was born when we started sending and receiving emails and messages from our mobile phones. Orkut demonstrated that a digital social media platform is possible. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and the like had to just piggyback on that experience. We have been using computers with operating systems and software applications for decades now so once we developed mobile phones creating sophisticated operating systems and applications for phones was only a matter of improvements in hardware technologies. What I do find disruptive though is the use of robots in industries and especially the use of drones for commercial purposes.
What I have understood from digital transformation is the exponential use of technology to manage and run businesses, solve business problems and improve and scale business environments. Managing and scaling businesses is possible but can technology solve all business problems? I was leading a transition team for the outsourcing of the IT infrastructure of a retail giant in the UK to India when one day I curiously asked the IT head of the client what problems did he see and face in the retail sector. I was expecting an answer but what I got from him was a question which changed my perception about business entirely and helped me understand why I need to take up a MBA program. After they embraced eCommerce and integrated it into their website, their customer size had increased but customers visiting their brick and mortar stores had dwindled. Their stores have amazing ambience and are primed to provide great shopping experience to customers so the question he asked was how to bring the customers back into the stores. There was no way to coax people to choose buying from stores over buying from their website. It was a business problem technological transformation couldn’t solve. One suggestion I gave him was to set up video cameras inside the stores and enable video sessions from their website so that customers can do in-store shopping virtually and interact with the customer executives at the stores. This would give customers greater understanding and control over what they are buying.
When my parents decided to set up a cloud kitchen, we decided that it would be operational only during peak lunch and dinner hours as prior preparation takes time. Our focus shifted entirely from getting more customers to creating better customer experience and getting repeat customers. After a year of being operational and being through the trying times of the pandemic, our business volume is low but repeat customers are slowly on the rise. People are calling us to enquire about our food items. A repeat customer who couldn’t place his order on the delivery platform called us to place his order and came to our place to pick up the order himself.
Customer experience has always been the heart and soul and bread and butter of all businesses. New technology tools and platforms are enabling businesses to reach out and connect with customers. But technology does not necessarily help in creating better customer experience every time. Imagine a distress call to a helpline number of a hospital for medical assistance being received by an AI powered automated system which asks for the name, age, presently experiencing symptoms and prior medical history and then the system takes it’s own time to analyze the medical problem and find out if a relevant doctor is available before assigning an ambulance. The patient needs immediate attention from any qualified doctor. Detailed examination and treatment can be done after the patient is admitted in the hospital.
Consider online food delivery companies replacing their delivery executives with drones to deliver food and groceries to their customers. When it comes to human needs, especially the basic needs such as food, clothing and shelter, there are too many aspects involved. Neither the food outlets nor the customers will be able to have any interaction with the drones. During the peak time of the pandemic when there were many containment zones in my city and delivering food was not possible in many places, we used to speak to the delivery executives and understand the situation on the ground from them before deciding on opening our kitchen. Delivery executives have even bought our food items when they came to collect client orders. None of these would have been possible if drones are being used.
Over thousands of years of our existence, we have evolved and are hard wired to communicate in person with one another. Technology may alter our behavior but it is impossible to rewire us mentally and emotionally in the span of a few years. The introduction of emojis on social media platforms is the best indicator that no matter how we communicate, we need to express our emotions continuously. An AI powered chatbot or automated system can never replace the reassuring voice of a human being on the other side when we are reaching out for help.
Digital transformation may not be a complete fit for all organizations and all types of industries. Business transformation will have different meanings, objectives and outcomes for different organizations and digitalization can only contribute in varying degrees as part of the business transformation program. There will be areas in the business environments that can be automated and simplified using technology but technology will never be able to replace human interactions and interventions completely. Companies will have to do their due diligence and assessments thoroughly and weigh the pros and cons very carefully in every aspect of their business before they embark on their digital transformation journey.
So if digital transformation is not the next big thing what is? An invention on the scale of electricity, TV or mobile phone that caters to basic human needs or the internet that jump started and exploded technology. Improving technologies and adding new features to devices is incremental and not disruptive innovation. I believe human civilization will reach its zenith when we attain the potential and ability to use our minds for our different needs. Telepathy, telekinesis and remote viewing may sound like sci-fi now, but references to them in texts from ancient civilizations is a sign for us. Even if we are not ready to believe those texts, if we have the ability to create such sophisticated technologies and devices why can’t we use our mind to communicate and move objects? Sony is coming out with a camera that can be fixed on the eye and can shoot photos when we blink. We are already observing and recording information with our eyes so why can’t we just download those images from our mind on to devices? We will continue chasing technologies and devices till we realize the true potential of our minds if the technologies and devices we are creating do not lead us to self destruction and extinction.