The Signal-Man – a cautionary tale of Digital Innovation

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Traditionally the Winter months are the time for ghost stories and spooky tales. I watched one of the best recently. Charles Dickens’ short story, The Signal-Man, is the story of a lonely signalman on a lonely line who foresees his own death. It’s beautifully written with a strong sense of foreboding and doom throughout.

And this got me thinking about the digital world and the nature of digital transformations. In The Signal-Man we have someone working in an outdated job in an old-fashioned industry who is killed off by technology.

My experience in IT: predictions of doom

In all of my working life I’ve been involved in major digital innovations… And, like The Signal-Man, there have been frequent premonitions of the demise of one technology to make way for another.

First Windows and Distributed computing were going to replace Mainframes and mid-range servers. But the the prediction didn’t come true. .

When I was at IBM I was involved in the global launch of their e-learning platform. Some people predicted that this was going to replace classroom training. This didn’t come true either. Although e-learning is now a multi-Billion industry worth over $300M classroom training is still alive and well.

My move into digital print (first at IBM and then at Ricoh) was heralded by dire warnings that Print was dead. In fact the global market for print is forecast to top $980 Bn this year, and, according to some Analysts is actually growing by approximately 2%.

Then Books were dead. They were going to be replaced by eBooks. They haven’t been. Last year over 687.2M printed books were sold. According to the latest figures as reported in Publishers Weekly, print book sales have grown for 4 years in a row, with growth of 1.9% 2016 to 2017.

So the big question is – why don’t the premonitions come true ?

I’m a part-time Lecturer at Abingdon and Witney College and this is exactly the question I posed my students on their Digital Information for Business Module last term.

How come that, even when organisations aspire to innovate,  the implementation of new technology can takes years – decades even?

The answer is that organisational change is complex and – in some ways – the technical implementation of new technology can be the easy bit. There are a number of key factors which determine how ready organisations are to undergo digital transformations.

And this brings me to my #BigIdea for 2018.

 Digital capability framework – the #Bigidea

For my course I created a simplified version of a Digital Capability Framework. This looks at the bigger picture, namely key factors that need to be considered when implementing digital transformations.

Importantly it looks at the barriers which stand in the way of adopting digital innovations. The framework I used was:

  • Digital technology
  • People
  • Process
  • Leadership

Digital Technology – Organisations already have digital technology and this is often a barrier in itself. How many organisations have rigid IT policies which can make implementing new and different technology difficult?

Even in organisations which are built on digital technology, implementing change can be difficult.

A great example of this is Foxtons Estate Agents. In the early 2000s they build their own in-house system (BOS) which revolutionised the way they worked and became a key factor in giving the Estate Agent a significant competitive advantage.

However, now, according to experts, the very same system that was central to their success are now “in danger of becoming the albatross around Foxtons’ neck” because it cannot easily be adapted to meet the new demands of the market.

People – As anyone who has been involved in any transformation project (not just digital) know, changing hearts and minds can be very difficult. There a number of reasons for this. Some people may feel threatened by new technology. But above all, many people simply don’t like change.

A number of years ago I was the Project Manager for the roll-out a new online training eCommerce solution in IBM UK. We had already developed the technical solution and had trialled it with selected customers across Europe. The biggest challenge we had was persuading the sales teams to support the solution. We had to spend a significant amount of time addressing their concerns, before we could move ahead with the implementation.

Process – This is often overlooked but is arguably the one thing that will make or break a digital transformation.  In many cases digital innovations can improve an existing process. For instance replacing a paper-based system with an online system can reduce errors, speed up the process, and eliminate the need to store paper documents.

However often new technology actually creates new problems – sometimes quite unforeseen.

For example, the recruitment process has been revolutionised over the past few years by the use of technology. With sites like LinkedIN and online recruitment sites like Indeed and Monster, perhaps it’s never been easier to find and apply for jobs. As a result HR Departments have been inundated with applicants. According to Collingwood average number of people who apply for a job is 118 .  I’ve been told “off the record” by recruiters that on average an organisation can expect to receive ‘hundreds’ of applicants for every job.

As a result HR Departments are increasingly having to resort to Applicant tracking systems and AI software to sort through CVs. However this in itself creates new problems. According to CIO.com  “non-traditional candidates or candidates with unusual experience that might be a very good fit could fall through the rules-based system, even one that learns and improves with ‘experience’.”

Leadership –  no digital innovation will get funding it needs to succeed long term without the support of the organisation leadership.  However this can be more difficult to obtain that you might think – and it’s not just budget.

There are many reasons with the Leadership in an Organisation may not support a new digital innovation. Maybe it’s timing – perhaps the Organisation has just been through a long and painful Transformation. Maybe it’s personalities – perhaps the CIO was the one who introduced the very IT system you are planning to replace.

Or maybe it’s the state of the Economy. For instance last year, according to a recent BBC report, the leadership of many businesses are choosing not to invest in the new technologies that would boost economic performance.

“This year also saw even big asset managers raising the alarm over how little businesses were investing in the future – preferring instead to increase payouts to shareholders. “

No baggage – the Startup advantage

Many organisations look with envy at the way Startups like Uber and AirBNB can innovate. The key thing is that startups have no baggage; they can build everything from scratch – including their corporate culture.

The interesting thing that we are seeing now is that when Startups mature they have to acquire much of the baggage of large organisations. So maybe in 5 to 10 years time these very Startups will also struggle with implementing new digital innovations. And that’s my prediction…

Predictions are not Premonitions

In Dicken’s story the poor Signal-man meets his end, just as he has foreseen.

However in the real world, the Signal-man wasn’t replaced by technology. In fact this was a key role on railways from the 1830s until the 1950s. And there are still Signal-men – the role has changed and adapted as new technology has become available.

This illustrates that Digital Innovation in the real world is rarely straightforward.

So beware of predictions about the death of types of technology and remember that they are not premonitions…

 

I’m a Freelance Marketing Consultant. Contact me to find out how I can help your transform your business for the digital world. 

#BigIdeas2018 #DigitalTransformation #DigitalInnovation

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