Innovating out of the “digital doldrums”

digital transformation

We may not yet be as close to a “post-cloud” or “post-blockchain” world (where workloads reside solely off-premises, and commonly used applications routinely exploit blockchain-like capabilities, in order to facilitate new and “digitally different” ways of working) as we’d like to think we are.

However, the signs are there (in the characteristics that define and differentiate new products and services) that increasing interest, across a broad range of sectors, is fuelling the mainstreaming of emerging technologies … through measures that increase both developer friendliness and enterprise-production relevance.

It’s not a free pass for unbridled experimentation, though. Business cases for projects that explicitly support “new normal” mission-driving activities will become strengthened; whilst those less relevant to business survival (or less able to demonstrate their worth effectively and quickly enough) will become seen as more niche and esoteric – and thus less deserving of senior sponsorship, funding, and adoption buy-in.

Evolving affinities for emerging tech

To succeed in helping the organisation to thrive, applications of emerging tech need to be demonstrably useful to the business and key stakeholders; usable (in that they ascribe to good design-thinking principles – since the bar for digital services is set high nowadays); and actually able to be used in widespread production (i.e. scalable to be adopted as a primary system, beyond shadow working on the low-risk, low-stakes fringes).

Post-COVID, some sure-fire hotspot use-case opportunities will inevitably have cooled (taking their cue from the attendant market around them); but in other areas – see the inner section of the diagram below – emerging tech is well-placed to facilitate some of the new ways of working which post-pandemic “new normalities” require. That’s why innovators are re-imagining them with cloud-based and blockchain-based applications at their core, because these technologies represent a way to do these things differently, more readily.

Evolving affinities for emerging tech

Source: Independent Thought

That’s not to say all other activities are off the table completely, but innovations in the outer edge of the diagram will only push through now if they can be shown to have a measurable effect on an organisation’s time-to-recovery.

The rise of pragmatic realism

But these changes cannot happen in a vacuum, and for many organisations there remain compelling business reasons to keep certain data and processes on-premises, and/or within the confines of an enterprise boundary and on centralised systems.

In this new economy of apps, dApps, platforms, APIs, smart contracts, etc. it’s therefore not a case of “either/or” (i.e. of moving from one thing to another and completely jettisoning what you had in place before). You should make your new application and platform choices in such a way that enables you to keep getting the most value from existing investments, whilst also leveraging the benefits of moving to the cloud, or deploying blockchain-based decentralisation, etc.

Happily, the interoperable and extensible platform world is built on standards and APIs that enable developers to integrate with (and build upon) new components in ways that suit the needs of the business – however cloud-curious or chain-curious it is.

A good platform will use standards to integrate with whatever other components, from whatever other vendors a customer has in place already (on premises, or in the cloud). However, there may well be aspects of other applications’ operations that aren’t able to be exploited as richly as you might want when relying on another vendor’s integration agnosticism. In these cases, it then pays to look out for a platform which also exhibits a particular “affinity” with elements from its own stable, allowing you to truly experience the best of a new cloud paradigm whilst leveraging the affordances your existing solution is still best placed to deliver.

This approach to design, development, and delivery will favour technology pragmatists who see the cloud, blockchain, etc. (and its attendant business change) as a “means to an end” (and are more concerned with total business outcome than notions of off-premises or decentralisation purity). Initiatives will thus become characterised by the development of “good enough” implementations that leverage emerging tech where it’s absolutely essential to do so (in order to perform some task which would otherwise be impossible or impractical); but eschew it in favour of more traditional means in other aspects of the overall service (where more “battle-hardened” alternatives are able to provide sufficient coverage).

Also bear in mind that projects need to focus on producing something that works, and doing so quickly enough to realise benefits within the tight timeframes required by COVID recovery initiatives. And provably so too, because continued support will become ever-more predicated upon evidence of earlier value.

Any claims of business benefit will therefore need to become more realistic as measurement becomes more heavily scrutinised. It’ll no longer be sufficient to make vague, unquantified, and unsubstantiated claims relating to notional process improvements. Projects will need to demonstrate their impact in terms that matter to top and bottom lines.

A changing role for IT in the business, and for the business in its network(s)

working with low-code business applications

To meet these challenges, IT needs to change too, to become a provider of value-added services to the business; to be and be seen as a net contributor, rather than a net cost.

Compared with “old-style” projects, development in a cloud environment is more agile and enables much more rapid time-to-value of the investment (and even where these investments ultimately fail to deliver as planned, it’s much cheaper to do so, with much faster turnaround times, so the organisation can afford to learn as it innovates new services).

Innovating on an integrated, cloud-based platform provides the means for IT to act as a “Centre of Innovation”. Whereas before, the focus was more on coordination and maintaining business-as-usual; now, where much of the heavy lifting can be done for you by cloud service providers, there’s the opportunity for IT to apply its expertise to add value in the most effective application of these new capabilities right across the organisation. There are even examples of IT departments ploughing back the savings they’ve achieved through cloud adoption into innovation work – re-casting themselves as an “internal disruption engine” for the business.

These changes affect not just the custodians of the IT estate and those across the business who use their services. They also present transformative opportunities to change the ways in which the whole organisation operates as a member of a business network ecosystem.

Whilst some relationships, even post-pandemic, will retain much of their pre-COVID style and substance, there are others (where customer dynamics have shifted, with competitor and partner positions following suit) where it will pay to adapt accordingly – by embracing new ways of getting work done (with new partners).

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Shifts in how you do business on the outside also require shifts in how you develop and operate your processes, systems, and services on the inside (and how you finance them – moving from capital to recurrent investment models, for instance). That means roles will change; skill requirements across teams will change; how people design and run the engine that drives the business will change …

For teams brought up on heavy software customisation and deep development projects, yes, the business will still likely need to work like this in some areas. But where things touch the cloud, it’s a different way of being. It’s a world of platforms, APIs, services, agility, and minimum viability.

Just as those who face the customer need to change to meet new expectations of getting work done; so those who tailor the tools they use will need to adapt to new development paradigms in the cloud. It’s not impossible, but it’s non-trivial – and you should manage for culture change across your in-house and partner development resource as much as in your end-user community when the cloud comes in!

Whilst many adopters may start off by looking to cloud-based apps and blockchain-powered applications to provide immediate efficiency savings, these technologies also have the potential to inspire whole new ways of working, and to disrupt and revolutionise business models across entire industries.

However, there’s no innovation without compensation. You’re not even going to get a shot at anything radical if the basic benefits haven’t been proven (and felt), and if the business isn’t yet “comfortable” in letting go of any parallel-running systems to begin entirely relying on new tech alternatives.

It’s therefore crucial to focus on delivering value and showing results in the short term in order to cement the longer-term business case. Only then will an emerging tech initiative retain the sponsorship and support required to deliver on its transformational promise … first lifting the organisation out of post-COVID torpor, before then setting out a way forward to recover its growth.

To learn more, read Independent Thought’s new whitepaper for Hyland, Thriving in the new normal: The role of emerging technologies to find out how emerging, collaborative technologies (like cloud-based apps and blockchain) are helping organisations thrive in the “new normal” business environment. Discover how they’re gaining a foothold and prominence post-COVID, and how organisations can use them to survive, thrive, and differentiate in a differently digital world.

Craig Wentworth is the Co-founder and Research Director at Independent Thought, where he focuses on how emergent and traditional technologies converge to address the problems and opportunities facing organisations today. He examines how this helps tech suppliers better anticipate and respond to their customers’ needs, as well as how tech buyers get the best value from their investments.
He has 30 years of experience in technology and change across the commercial and not-for-profit sectors, in a broad range of roles (including analyst research, consultancy, technology strategy, innovation and service delivery).
Craig Wentworth

Craig Wentworth

Craig Wentworth is the Co-founder and Research Director at Independent Thought, where he focuses on how emergent and traditional technologies converge to address the problems and opportunities facing organisations today.... read more about: Craig Wentworth