You can call it “Internet Revolution,” or “Digital Transformation,’ or any other hip marketing slogan, but it’s all the same thing.
Businesses fling obscene piles of cash at consultants in order to secure massive and swift competitive advantages, only to wind up burdened with tech support quagmires… and no compelling competitive advantage. I don’t mean to come across a curmudgeon, but we technologists have been at this for thirty years. All of the easy gains have already been realised. There aren’t any more magic leaps forward to be had, especially not for businesses which have kept up with the industry standards.
I understand the appeal, though. I recall when email was new. Getting to instantly correspond across oceans was exhilarating when everyone else had to wait a week for a mailed letter. Getting to edit complicated forms on a PC instead of retyping them from scratch after every noticed error massively reduced workplace stress. Being able to search enormous regulations for keywords cut research time from days or weeks down to minutes and saved jobs. Heck, even getting students to laser print their essays made grading papers an order of magnitude less exhausting (if no less insipid). Technology transformations have given us stunning improvements in office quality of life. I’m a diehard fan of new tech.
The thing is, we’re well past the days of Huge Leaps Forward. Everyone has email and web forms now. To corrupt cyberpunk science fiction writer William Gibson, the future has arrived, and much of it has been commoditised. Pretty much anyone with a white-collar job can do most of their work with a Wi-Fi hotspot, a smartphone and a £100 laptop. We have “work from home,” 24/7 access, and virtual everything. The “digital future” has long since been and gone.
That being said, the marketplace won’t stop making grandiose promises of “revolutions”.
Electronic bookkeeping isn’t enough – now you need Enterprise Resource Planning! Email is so last year – now you need Enterprise Collaboration! Whatever you already have working, there’s always a much larger, more expensive, and staggeringly more complex new version of it that your business absolutely must have if you want to stay relevant. Just ask your favourite consultant: they’ve got slides aplenty explaining why your business is completely doomed if you don’t upgrade, iterate, federate, move to “the cloud” and TRANSFORM! TRANSFORM! TRANSFORM! It’s exhausting.
Yes, there are new capabilities to be won from adding new arrows to your allegorical quiver. Just remember that every new system you deploy brings with it a new and inescapable tech support burden. Further, most of these “transformative solutions” force you to trade simplicity for capability. That’s often a losing proposition. The “huge” gains in productivity that the consultants promise can’t be realised without also introducing momentum-sapping drag.
Is it worth it? It can be if you’re realistic about it. Massive tech transformations can add value and can secure you a competitive advantage. They’re never quick, though. They’re also never cheap, and they’re never, ever simple. Modern businesses are already saturated with technology, most of which is huge pain to support and secure before you go and overcomplicate it. Everything that’s added to the pile makes the whole mess harder to sustain, thereby increasing the total support burden. If you want to avoid a catastrophic collapse, deploy new technologies deliberately, with careful planning and meticulous testing.
As for your favourite consultants – the ones who promised you overnight success – shoo the lot of them out of the building. If you can’t secure the “grand transformation” they promised with your own IT staff, you’ll never be rid of your cheerful £300/hour “partners”.