Dealing with disruption in the digital business

What is fluidic about digital disruptions, and why does that change the ways that change happens?

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Dealing with disruption in the digital business Daryl C. Plummer, Gartner VP and fellow.
By  Daryl C. Plummer Published  November 25, 2014

IT leaders have been challenged to keep up with the demand for change from their businesses, which studies have shown has been increasing during the past five years. Digital business is exacerbating this situation.

We have lived with occasional disruptions for decades in everything from the way we collaborate, and how products and services are delivered, to the markets that we depend on. However, disruption has become something different. It has become fluid because of digital business technologies - that is, it's nonstop, unpredictable and is spreading everywhere.

The question that needs to be answered is, "What is fluidic about digital disruptions, and why does that change the ways that change happens?"

The answer is that digital business is based on the manipulation of digital representations of virtual or physical assets, channels and capabilities. Because they are in digital form, they are easier, and often faster, to manipulate.

The possibilities are limited only by the imagination. And these assets, channels and capabilities can be used in a wider variety of ways than their analog counterparts.

As a result, change in the digital age is happening at such a high frequency, often in unexpected ways, that it seems like a stream of interconnected disruptions that are difficult to identify, let alone react to. The kind of change we face now is constant and pervasive, and the many changes we make cause other changes to be necessary.

The machines of digital business

We have postulated that the nature of change is shifting. One of the reasons for this is because of the types of technologies we must use when transitioning to a digital business. Our decisions about technology can be as simple as picking a certain type of software package or computer. However, we must also examine the characteristics of the technologies that support the fluidity that digital business creates. This means using more-adaptive technologies. We could look at architectural elements, such as cloud services or open APIs to address the need for change; however, digital business requires us to make technology decisions at a higher level.

The "era of analog machines," in which machines were designed around fixed mathematical or physical relationships, has been a long one. For example, typewriters as analog machines depended on pressing the key to move a lever that pressed ink onto a page. This is a fixed physical relationship. No matter how fast or how hard the key is pressed, the result is fixed. This is an excellent way to create repetitive behaviors; however, it also tends to create rigidity in the use of the machine. When a new capability is required (such as adding pictures to documents), the typewriter cannot handle the change and must be replaced. The time it takes to create the new machine is long. A typewriter example may seem a bit archaic, but it is mirrored by some legacy machine architectures, such as fixed disk storage or dumb terminals, which are still widely deployed by some companies.

The second era (the "era of data processing") began with the introduction of digital machines, which processed information in structured digital formats.

This allowed for many ways to manipulate or process the information; however, it still lacked the adaptability needed to keep processes in the virtual world in sync with real-world physical activities in an agile way. In digital processing, it is common for data entry to be manual and error-prone or to have a built-in latency to updates.

Anyone who has been involved with the picking and packing of inventory has run into this problem on an annual basis. There is a mismatch between the real-world activity and the digital implementation of that activity.

Moving forward, the era of digital and autonomous machines is underway. In this period, everything has a digital connection or representation. Physical objects are now active participants in business interactions, and machines are beginning to operate in an autonomous mode that doesn't require human intervention. This finally gets us to a point at which almost any virtual or real-world process can be altered with a minimum of overhead and setup time. For example, digital and autonomous machines enable us to virtually hail a taxi, or allow a warehousing robot to autonomously find a palette of goods, deliver it to a packer and simultaneously update inventory in real time.

In digital business, every resource, asset or capability has been made digitally accessible or changeable. The technologies now support the emergence of different types of business models, which depend increasingly on the technologies used. A bank can exist without machines, digital or otherwise; however, a crowdsourced lending network, or a worldwide digital currency interchange cannot easily exist without digitalization.

The use of such technologies increases the need to handle change in an adaptive (or fluid) way. This is necessary because fluidic disruption is spreading, like water, across people and business. Each disruption often overlaps with other disruptions and leads to more disruptions. Each disruption can be unexpected, like water seeping into a building's foundation. One of the advantages of fluids is that they are pliable and can take on the shape of whatever contains them.

The flow of disruptions in digital business is fluidic because of the pliability, or ease of manipulation, of digital representations.

Digital technologies open the door to increasingly fluidic disruptions. A proper response to these disruptions will not be just to buy new technologies.

It will also require a cultural and organizational commitment to understanding how change happens and what kind of change is needed to support digital business. Adaptive technologies will help, but they are not a "silver bullet."

They must also be aligned with appropriate methodologies, such as agile methods and DevOps.

The fluidic disruption unleashed by digital business will require major changes involving mindset, behavior and methods aligned with adaptive technologies. The successful IT leader will embrace more-adaptive technologies in the context of building a more adaptive business.

In that way, they will apply just enough new technology to deliver agile outcomes and capitalize on business moments, despite the fluidic disruption of digitalization.

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