Generic terms and generic answers and how we need an evolving language to build more engagement in digital.

When we consider how we talk about technology and its impact I would dearly love us to get away from generic terms and become more creative in how we describe benefits that we are here help our business to achieve.

There is a danger in technology in 2022 of making the mistakes that those early creators and inventors of the disco sound did! Disco songs were, on purpose, built to be generic and often delivered by faceless ‘bands’, but lets face it always with a strength of undertone to link them. As Questlove puts it in his book Music Is History; ‘… generic names almost as if they were zoned for a lack of personality.’ We have ‘Rock the Boat’, ‘Ring My Bell’ and ‘Knock On Wood’ all created in 1978 by bands that remain relatively unknown and yet the underlying themes of these songs were relatively clear!

Like the descriptions we have of technology now, generic with a theme that links them all together ultimately. So much has been written about the title of leaders in technology, what is a CIO in 2022, so let’s not go there; let us instead explore the way we want to describe to the world, the outcomes, the feats of engineering, development, transformation and change. What we do is exciting, and we need to ensure that our businesses know and feel excitement for what we are trying to achieve with them.

At an event this month Chris Hay of IBM iX presented what he described as the new values of the internet in his lead up to a brilliant presentation on what the Meta Verse will bring for our business. I wonder if these terms, whilst to some degree still generic, could be adopted as principles for how we explain the delivery of digital transformation to our business, let me try and then lets see what you think:

Connections: As digital delivers it has to connect people and systems to win. It is kind of the whole reason it is there really to create connectivity and allow smooth transition from one ‘thing’ to another. So when we describe the point of digital I wonder if we could concentrate more on the benefit of people and things being connected?

Commerce: Ultimately in its most base definition we want digital to deliver the ability for commerce to take place, that need not be the cold hard retail transaction and could just as easily be the transaction of getting value for someone for something. So maybe commerce is ‘code’ for add value?

Consent: The creation of consent at a people level to ensure that the data journeys that digital requires to add value has become essential. No matter if it’s the consent of our businesses to move information around or from our customers or patients to enable us to personalise what we offer without consent digital transformation is dead in the water. So, by lodging consent as an early-stage descriptor of the transformation we ensure everyone is truly aware of where and what we need to get there.

Collaboration: At my own core I believe that without collaboration we may as well not try to start a transformation journey at all! Who inspires the collaboration, how it gets off the ground does not matter to me but as a principal descriptor that must never be seen as generic, I believe that collaboration is the top rule for ‘making it so!’

Community: Is it a community of practice, of excellence or of business focus, im not sure it matters, what I do think though is that collaboration leads to community and if you have created a transformation community you are pointing all ‘your guns’ in the same direction with the same goal being the outcome which surely leads to success for everyone involved. I love the word community here as it eludes, I think to the creation of the eco-system rather than the vendor partnership we have all seen fail too often in digital transformation.

Copresence: Wow, this one for me is harder and because of that feels more powerful. The presence of digital transformation, business need, data offering and technology for me feel like the copresence required to create successful digital transformation. This last of the Cs could well be the panacea we all strive for every time our feet hit the rug and we jump out of bed.

As new principles of non-generic description headings for digital transformation that hopefully more than IT ‘people’ can get behind I quite like these. They achieve for me something we have been trying to get to for a couple of decades, a common language that can be used to inspire in every part of the transformation cycle and a set of place holders that we can start to use from high level plan to business case to end state evaluation. So, whilst Chris didn’t intend these words to be used like this, I don’t think I still want to thank him as they sure pushed my brain into a new place.

Any new partner trying to win the next piece of work in 2022 will talk to you about outcomes-based arrangements, I want us as technology leaders to try to lead the conversation or at least get there at the same time as perspective new partners. We need to have clarity on what the value to our business is of IT. As we enter these ‘harder times’ it will be very easy to slash and burn on IT investment unless we can truly describe the value we are collectively here to deliver.

Gartner in brilliantly typical style is now talking about the seven rules of business value IT:

1.      Value is always determined by the stakeholder.

2.      Not all values are equally valued.

3.      Build two value narratives; one of change and one of run.

4.      Measure IT’s impact on stakeholders not IT effort expanded.

5.      Align IT costs to the business services the enable.

6.      Communicate IT value in the language of the stakeholder.

7.      Those funding IT must understand the value and impact of IT to stakeholder objectives.

As headings (similar to the 5 Cs above) we can make these work for us, I think. My one concern is there are a lot of words in there that are generic and require definition at a business level to come to life. It will all be in the definition. For example, we have struggled to define who the stakeholder is, we need to do it and get it right but is it the immediate person using the solution, the customer (or patient) benefiting from the digital solution, or our wider business and the efficiencies gain it has from being more digital. Maybe the secret is in the order of these seven points though as the next one down is kind of pointing out go find out who the stakeholder is so you can be clear on the value and to who it delivers.

The third one I love, although is Gartner rhetoric for bi-modal, I guess. Building two narratives at once that our business can be engaged in is challenging. I have written before about the Sunday dinner perception of IT (it can just as easily be applied to digital transformation). Give me the shiny lovely chocolate cake quickly, the carrots and sprouts (representing run) aren’t as exciting! Maybe it’s because we are heading towards Christmas (Peak) and dinner is on people’s minds but this is the most optimum time to get engagement in the run-first narrative we tend to find and that is something this year I want to hold on to after the turkey has been consumed!

Its easy for us to obsess on number four! It’s hard to get things done and therefore we can easily fall into the time and materials (costs and value) for and to IT. We have to always come back to our business and check in that we are still doing what they asked for no matter what the effort is we have put in as digital leaders. Let’s try hard then to describe (in nongeneric terms) the collective value we have achieved in doing this. Kind of hand in hand with this is where the costs align too. This one takes a special kind of digital leader; what if IT had no budget other than a basic running cost and every transformation project ‘owned’ the budget as a business unit. Its hard to do because you need to offer almost entire control to your stakeholders but of you have the right collaboration, respected and agreed guardrails and a joined-up view of the north star then you truly can align the vast majority of digital costs to the services they deliver.

The last two of these seven deadly sins (if you get them wrong) are closely linked to the original premise of this whole piece. Language, the excitement it can generate and getting agreement on what we use to describe the journey we are collectively on. If we have a shared (nongeneric) meaningful language that describes value that we are trying to get to then alignment together can be achieved. Stakeholder language is held up in the Gartner phrases as the goal, I am not sure it has to be, but what does have to be in place is common understanding of what the content means. We have seen that turning everything into purist stakeholder language can remove key joint understanding of the technology that is needed to succeed, after all if this stuff was easy, we would all be able to achieve it much more quickly. So for me I would advocate less for a blanket move to none technology speak and instead insist on a common language that everyone understands and can be used by technologists and business leaders alike.

So, there we have it, some views enhanced or stolen with pride on how we get to a better use of language to build a clear view of value that in turn will ease the path to fulfilment of our dreams!

… and as we started with references to disco let’s finish with a disco quote from ‘the’ most famous disco song ever, ‘Whether you’re a brother or whether you’re a mother, you’re stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive!