Sylvia Jensen
Sylvia Jensen 30 January 2018

How today's digital organisations are exactly like London's struggling transport system

This article interestingly compares digital organisations to London’s forever struggling transport systems. Split into various categories, this article talks about the reasons why digital is such a struggle for organisations, and discusses how they need to shift their thinking of digital transformation to simply transformation – digital is no longer an add-on but a fundamental basis for business success.

One could argue that today’s digital organisations are exactly like London’s creaking transport system — in fact, the transport system of most cities. The number of similarities between the way organisations handle digital and the way governments provision transport systems in the 21st century is quite startling. Here’s how:

1. They both take years to build

First, both cities and large organisations have built up their systems over a long period of time. In London, buses first came into operation in the early 19th century, the underground opened in 1863, the DLR in 1982 and the London Overground in 2007. Digital organisations have undergone a similar ‘build-up’ phase over a number of years, first through the introduction of computers in the workplace to email, social media, personalisation, big data management, know-your-customer (KYC) processes, business agility, and much more…

2. The different components rarely work well together

Secondly, barely any of the different channels within a system seem to work together properly. The result in London is that cars spend inordinate amounts of time in traffic jams, streets are too complex to navigate, the Tube is packed with commuters, and no-one really knows how to work the buses without Citymapper. The digital experience of many large organisations suffers from similar problems of scale. One piece of technology designed to solve a particular problem doesn’t necessarily work well with existing technology, while being unable to cope with the moving technological landscape and changing consumer behaviour.

3. Not all regions get the same experience

Thirdly, the experience in different regions is inconsistent. In London, many argue that North London is better connected than South London, offering more bus routes, and Tube and Overground stops. The same goes for businesses that operate in different geographical regions. Some regions seem to be better catered for than others, which is often the result of each region building up their own digital capabilities rather than the business taking a holistic centralised view of the world. Too often, the result is a ‘bitty’ set of customer interactions, and a failure to successfully thread an experience together. The brand ends up totally inconsistent across different channels and regions.

4. Leaders are often scared of spending big

Fourthly, both cities and organisations will rarely spend vast amounts of money on new systems, opting rather to improve what they have, little by little. Every year, Congress in the US passes lots of smaller road budgets rather than one big one — even when the big contract would be cheaper — out of a perennial fear of big spending numbers appearing in the media. The question becomes, “to reduce squeamishness, how can we reduce pain?” This may be by starting small projects which can be combined at a later date. Then, stitching these projects together can be presented as a smart way to integrate and save costs as opposed to the big spending project. A similar trend occurs in organisations who build up systems in siloes rather than holistically.

CDOs — stuck between a rock and hard place

Obviously, burning a major city to the ground and starting afresh isn’t an option, but if you’re building a new city from scratch, you’re likely to build it much more efficiently. And though many senior digital professionals may be tempted to push a sclerotic digital system to the point where it could break (to show their boss they need a new one), failure is unacceptable in most industries today. The unglamorous job of people at the top of digital is simultaneously to argue a system isn’t fit for purpose, and run it so that it never fails.

The challenge becomes, how do you build a technology architecture that operates from a central point, making the management of the entire estate much simpler? How can you operate like a start-up without ripping out your current technology setup and starting again?

Boards of directors — stop thinking of digital as an afterthought

One of the biggest challenges for CTOs is to persuade those who hold the purse strings within their organisation that the digital transformation journey is worth taking. Often, these purse string holders are not digitally minded, and so need a psychological shift before buying into the idea. This psychological shift, I believe, is the shift from digital transformation — to simply transformation.

Digital is not an add on; it is now the fundamental basis as to how today’s businesses work, and what customers want. Digital transformation today is the equivalent of the introduction of computers to the workplace decades ago. Those on the board of directors in any organisation need to know that. But it’s also important to remember that those on boards are unlikely to be proactive from the perspective of investing in tech, but reactive from a customer standpoint.

What customers want

Businesses have changed because of customers, partly because businesses understand customers better nowadays thanks to big data, and partly because the new expectation from customers is for a radically better and seamless service alongside complete convenience. If they want to access different parts of a business, they will not want to have to repeat themselves. If they want to access a service, they will wish to do so immediately. If they are interacting with a brand, they will expect to do so in a way that suits them.

Everything from the customer side must be simple. But simplicity requires complexity; simplicity for the customers require contortions and machinations on the side of vendors.

But that’s where digital transformation comes in — and it’s a cause worth fighting for. It has the potential to change everything for the better, enabling businesses to better serve their customers and ultimately make more money. Just like the right technology architecture is the answer to London’s ageing transport system, technology architecture is the key to enabling the future generation of digital businesses.

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