Digital trends compressing processes

Four real-world examples to demonstrate how digital technologies are compressing processes, speeding up the ‘gather intelligence – decide – act’ cycle across industries

The following presentation was a short keynote using case studies to show how the big four digital trends – social media, mobile devices, big data, and cloud computing – are disrupting ‘business as usual’ by speeding up decisions and actions. To be effective in this environment, businesses need to compress their processes to match their customers / competitors / alternatives…

This version of the presentation been formatted for Slideshare (in the original, each example was animated to help visually tell the story). And is followed by some additional notes.

Additional notes

The four trends should not be a surprise: social media, Internet-connected mobile devices, massive amounts of data being updated in real-tie and cloud computing hosting the content and communications on a global basis. Combined, they enable conversations, analysis, decisions and actions at a speed and scale that simply did not happen before.

Example #1: September 11th changed intelligence procedures

September 11th, 2001 was possibly the first major event that felt the impact of the Internet and mobile devices. Studies later found that as many as 2,500 lives were saved by people ignoring expert advice. With landlines disconnected, many stuck in the towers were able to gather information via mobile phones, chose to ignore official procedures (stay put, don’t use the lifts) and managed to get out in time.

But there was another lesson to be learned. The 2005 paper: The Wiki and the Blog, published by the CIA noted that all the necessary intelligence of such an attack was known independently, but not connected. Confidentiality protocols prevented departments from sharing information – information was accessed on a ‘need to know’ basis, and decision hierarchies meant the journey from gathering intelligence, interpreting and analysing, making a decision and then acting on it was taking far too long. Research highlighted the trends that are impacting many industries.

The circumstances to which we respond develop more quickly. These rapidly changing circumstances take on lives of their own, which are difficult or impossible to anticipate or predict.

The solution: flatten hierarchies, open up information stores and communication channels, make more connections between different sources of data. Use tools, such as wikis and blogs, that make it easier to quickly share, discuss and update information. Shorten the cycle of receiving intelligence, deciding what to do, and acting on that decision

Example #2: A/B testing enables real-time decisions based on feedback

A somewhat less dramatic example but reinforcing the message. A/B testing is simply putting up two versions of the same web page and analysing behaviours (time spent on the page, what elements are clicked or interacted with) and then choosing the most successful version. Rinse and repeat. In short – it uses feedback to decide the design rather than expert opinions.

Sounds easy but sometimes it can be hard to accept when the feedback doesn’t align with expectations. People are great at ignoring or dismissing data that doesn’t fit our own viewpoint. IGN gaming network discovered that crisp clear prose was outperforming hyped-up buzzwords on certain parts of their home page. Previously, the opposite had been true. Why the change? After much ‘head scratching’ they finally realised it simply didn’t matter. Just make the change. If the results shift, make the change again…

[The latest trend] in A/B testing is to automate the whole process… so that the software, when it finds statistical significance, simply diverts all traffic to the better performing option.

Example #3: Given the opportunity, people will learn and mentor

The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative, headed by Nicholas Negroponte, handed out tablet devices to children in a remote village in Africa. The children had no formal education, no access to the Internet or digital technologies and had never heard English. The tablets were running the Android operating system, pre-loaded with over 1,000 apps – a mix of audio books, sub-titled cartoons, and number games.

The original expectation was that there would be more interest in the cardboard boxes than the tablets inside. There were no instructions given, no guidance or help. Just regular observation and analysis of log files recording all interactions.

It took 4 minutes to power up the first tablet. Within 5 days they were averaging 47 apps per child per day. Within 2 weeks they were singing ABC songs in the village. Within 3 months they had mastered the basic sounds of the English alphabet. At 5 months they had managed to activate the built-in camera and were taking pictures (the camera had been accidentally disabled during set-up).

Whilst many will debate the ethics of the study, the results are fascinating. A group consisting of mixed ages and abilities working and learning together without any formal rules or instructions. The older and faster learners helping the others. Lessons that can be applied to business – perhaps be a little less prescriptive with activities, let people self-organise and discover possibilities, encourage mentoring.

Example #4: The Internet of Things means now everything is connected

Another quite recent example. The CIO at Toyota North America has been outsourcing all standard IT services such as email, file storage and device management. Re-focusing the IT department on supporting the business purpose and investing more roles in R&D activities. Great to see the IT role shifting back to being an enabler. I don’t know whether it’s an automotive industry trend, but the European CIO at BMW shared a very similar philosophy during a keynote at another analyst event in 2012 – Gartner’s annual CIO symposium. At BMW, 45% of the IT budget is spent on ‘keeping the lights on’ activities. The average is 60%. BMW is also focusing IT on R&D activities to help the business innovate.

And the automotive industry is demonstrating another big trend – sensors integrated into devices, automatically sending real-time updates over the Internet. A/B testing is about tracking what people do. Sensors do the same for machines – the ‘Internet of things’.

In this example, we have car. And a driver. The steering wheel monitors the driver’s vital signs – heart beat, blood pressure, sugar levels. That data can be automatically updated to online services for analysis. Yikes, the outlook is not good! Alert the driver to pullover and wait for the ambulance. Or… when the self-driving car goes fully into production, sit back and let the car take you straight to the hospital.

Example #5: Those with a stake in the outcome want to be involved

The fifth trend – less about technology, more about sociology. I’m not a fan of the word ‘Gamification’ but it describes a simple concept: applying game dynamics in non-gaming environments to motivate a change in behaviour. The simplest form that has appeared thanks to other technology trends is the use of badges and scoreboards. They can be great for getting people to complete tasks they otherwise wouldn’t bother to do. But the uses are limited – they are essentially about manipulation and benefits may only last in the short term.

Another side to game dynamics is role-playing and simulations. Arguably, games have been part of certain industries for decades – such as flight simulators used to train pilots without risking expensive airplanes or human lives. Massive multi-player online games such as World of Warcraft have demonstrated how engaged people become when immersed in something they want to do. The quests that are central to the game require team work, planning, regular communications, adapting in real-time when conditions change and ongoing skills development to face quests with increasing difficulty. Most organisations would benefit from enhancing those abilities in their workforce…

So how does a disengaged office worker suddenly become such an engaged and active participant in a virtual quest? First, they have a stake in the outcome. They are in control of their destiny. They aren’t being told to do something ‘just because…’ Second, they enjoy the activity. Who said work can’t be fun? Of course, much of work has to be taken seriously. But create an environment that fosters a sense of fun and you’re likely increase participation. Third, everyone is involved and has a role to play. There is no resentment that some people aren’t pulling their weight. The guild survives and thrives as a team. And that includes sharing the rewards… everybody gains from winning a quest.

Self-organising, highly engaged, working as a team, adapting in real-time to unpredictable circumstances – the definition of a modern business process, occurring in a game…

Role-playing games tap into essential human desires – to be in control and to be appreciated – that formal processes too often fail to take into account. Has the workplace become inhuman?

Closing summary

This was a short story-telling talk using real examples to highlight how digital, social and economic trends are impacting processes. It doesn’t mean the end of traditional process management and improvement but rather recognising that different approaches suit different environments. Standardised routines are all about managed, controlled, predictable outcomes – concentrating on stability, consistency and efficiency.  Predictable outcomes do not guarantee good results, particularly if facing uncertainty and change. Many industries are beginning to see the need for and benefits of more personalised and agile processes – more open access to data, more connected people, shorter decision cycles, being able to adapt in real-time and making continuous incremental adjustments based on feedback.


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