The Winds of Change

John Blackham, Chief Technology Advisor to AptumX and Founder & CEO of our partners XSOL, reflects on the rapidly changing relationship between business and technology in conversation with David Terrar, Founder and CXO of Agile Elephant and Analyst with Bloor Research International.

Q: John, you often write about the need for business to look at software and technology in a different way. What do you mean by that?

A: The progress of the human race has been built on technological advancement, from the lever and the wheel to the internal combustion engine and the computer. Technology enables productivity. It allows us to do more with less effort. The Digital Age is just getting started and already we’re unable to keep up with the productivity opportunities that technology is providing.

Q: I get the idea of doing more with less – what’s holding us back from these opportunities?

A: It’s the way we view change. We treat it like a gust of wind that hits us every now and then, when in fact the winds of change have turned into a continual breeze with occasional blasts. For business, change is a fire drill, when in fact the conditions facing business are changing virtually every day.

A good example of the challenge we face is climate change. We see its impact and we are exhorted to act but our modus operandi is based on same today, same tomorrow. This has to change, for the survival of business as well as the planet.

Q: You’re saying business as usual won’t cut it – so how do you suggest business adapts or evolves?

A: Today, I look at a corporation and I see a battleship cutting through the waves bringing its product and services to bear on its target, the customer. Tomorrow, I see a different corporate form, a twin hulled vessel, with one hull focused on its customers and the other focused on the market potential offered by new technologies. On one side customer service rules, on the other, business is focused on how they can use new technology to help customers achieve more – to delight their customer.

Q: You use the word ‘delight’, but aren’t businesses doing that for customers already?

A: They may aim to delight their customers, and may even do so in some small measure, but they are fundamentally not geared to offer the speed of change that customers need to respond to their changing environment.

To delight a customer you should be in advance of their needs, able to show them how technology can improve their business and give them a competitive advantage. At the very least you should be able to respond to their needs as they arise.

Today, business has the choice of “one size fits all” Cloud software or a customised package that can take months or even years just to upgrade to stay current. Catering rapidly for an industry specific ‘must have’ or introducing ‘hot’ new technology that will win business is typically not an option.

Q: I see the problem, but how can a business change course and keep up?

A: First.. it is possible, but it requires a huge rethink on the part of business. Today, the CEO defers anything technical to the IT specialists. By their very nature they are not business specialists yet they are the ones charged with providing the business support systems. This has to change.

CEOs must be personally responsible for what is effectively the life support system of their business. How these systems work and what they do must be defined and managed by business people with the help of IT people to enable technical integrations.

And business people need software that enables them to do this. Software that enables change at a moment’s notice.

Q: This is pretty radical. Are we talking about CEOs and managers becoming ‘citizen developers’?

A: Absolutely not. This would be trying to turn business people into IT people, when the issues that govern business are quite complex. What I’m suggesting is giving business people software that has this complexity already built into it so that all they have to do is to give it their own ‘flavour’.

Q: What do you mean by ‘flavour’? Complex enterprise software can actually be replaced by this?

A: Yes. Business is complex, but regardless of what business you are talking about they all operate to the same set of basic principles of supply and demand and the processes that enable this activity. At present this is coded into every enterprise system, in addition to which is a huge raft of features that are designed to satisfy every user in every industry. A customer may use a fraction of the features in the product, yet the complexity they add is a huge barrier to enabling unique innovative functions.

We currently use a sledgehammer and nut approach to providing business systems. To keep up with change and to enable us to delight our customers we need a much more nimble approach.

Q: It sounds like you can do this now. Why is the market not flocking to what sounds like a brilliant solution?

A: When everyone believes the earth is flat, it takes a long time to see that it is spherical, even when presented with evidence. Too many people are vested in the current way of viewing things. Shifting the way enterprise systems are viewed from being IT-centric to business-centric is just such a move.

Yet there is evidence to show that this is possible. Until the mid-eighties many financial reports were coded by programmers. Then the spreadsheet not only eliminated this need but gave accountants a whole new way to do their work – they were delighted by the arrival of the spreadsheet.

The spreadsheet is what we now call a Digital Twin, that is, a digital representation of a real-world artifact. Its columns and rows replicate an accountant’s ledger – but with vastly more capability.

The same is true for the rest of business – what we do, the desks we sit at and the tasks we do at our desk, can be replicated in a digital model. This means that the doing of tasks and the passing of work from one person to the next can all be predefined in software. The only things users need to add are the specific words they use.

Q: But industries and even individual organisations are so different. How can you satisfy them all on a single platform?

A: Let me give you some examples that show how industries are really only separated by the words they use and the sequence in which they transact business. A customer will buy a product from a manufacturer. A guest will stay in a room at an hotel. A patron will loan a book from a library. These business transactions can all be satisfied by the same logic ..and different labels.

Hopefully you can see the pattern. There is obviously a lot more to the complexity that underpins an enterprise system, but it can all be defined in a Digital Twin model that is common to any business.

Q: That does sound “delightful”. Do you have a final word?

A: Yes, Automation. The goal of this new approach has to be fully automated business, starting with managing the flow of work. The benefits I have seen have been huge. The critical factor is to ensure that the automated system replicates what happens in the real-world 100% …hence the Digital Twin.