John Pientka

Driving Down That Digital Highway – Which Way Are You Looking?

The Digital Highway

Like it or not your organization is on a digital journey. It’s not easy. Falling behind can have terrible consequences. How do you insure you’re looking into the future?

They are preaching it from the rooftops! The widespread availability of new digital tools and processes are transforming our world. Regardless of whether you are in business, government or academia, change is coming. And, it is coming faster and faster. The only question is are you winning or loosing. Are you ahead or behind?

Maybe the topic is a bit over hyped but seriously, as we come to the end of the year it’s a good idea to take stock of where things stand. As an incentive, just look at how much things have changed this year. Lots of examples litter the horizon. On the upside we have seemingly crazy stuff like Bitcoin – 900% growth in just the past year. On the down side, look at poor GE, the only company to remain on the S&P500 since it was started in the 1920’s. This year the index is up 26%+ but GE has fallen by 42% and cut its dividend in half.

Our challenge is things only look obvious in hindsight. We all have a tendency to look back and extrapolate incrementally into the future. It’s hard to see a potential disruption. In fact, often our first response is to dismiss the possibility. How do we get around it? How do we truly look forward? Let’s explore a couple of elements and an exercise that can help.

Who do you turn to for advice? Seem like an odd place to start? Think about it. Many things shape your perspective but one of the foremost is input from individuals you respect. If not a formal board of directors we all have a network of folks where we turn to bounce things off and look for new insights. These people may bring industry expertise or financial acumen. What about technology expertise? Sadly, a recent study revealed that 95% of public companies surveyed had no non-executive directors with deep technology fluency. In the U.S., almost half the companies reviewed had no technology expertise on their boards.

Are your people digitally fluent? Here’s an extreme example: pity the federal government. Data from the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) reveals that there’s only one under-30 IT specialist working in agencies for every four who are over 60 years old. And, we wonder why the feds seem so far behind compared to our other everyday experiences. Are you having a hard time attracting savvy talent? Are there fresh ideas and novel perspectives bubbling up from your folks? If not, you have to recruit staff or train your current ones, probably both.

Now, you know how your shop runs. Imagine if one of the key elements changed radically, not just by a little bit, but by a lot! It takes a little work and some brainstorming but pick some fundamentals of your business and imagine they go away or become free. This is where advisors and your people are a great resource. They are your radar piercing the fog ahead.

Look at the Post Office when first class mail virtually disappeared, or Kodak when cameras did not need film. If you’re in any part of the automobile business from a manufacturer to a dealer, what if people don’t buy cars anymore? From oil companies to gas station owners what if people don’t buy gas anymore since cars are electric. Power utilities wonder what if homes don’t need to buy power off the grid anymore because they have solar panels on the roof and batteries in the basement.

Those are examples of some threats. How about some opportunities? Let’s say you run a specialized shop that prototypes new products. Could the advent of 3D printing make your offering better, faster or less expensive? Or, how about if you run a small recruiting firm, could marketing technology enable you to reach out to more potential clients more effectively and compete better with the big boys.

Quite an exercise isn’t it. There are no wild impossible things in this brainstorm because history has already demonstrated the most unusual things can and do occur. Now step back, do you see someone working on making one or more of the things you identified happen? Could you make it happen? How long do you have? How fast do you need to adapt? Remember one of my favorite quotes by the author, William Gibson: “The future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

By John Pientka

John Pientka

John is currently the principal of Pientka and Associates which specializes in IT and Cloud Computing.

Over the years John has been vice president at CGI Federal, where he lead their cloud computing division. He founded and served as CEO of GigEpath, which provided communication solutions to major corporations. He has also served as president of British Telecom’s outsourcing arm Syncordia, vice president and general manager of a division at Motorola.

John has earned his M.B.A. from Harvard University as well as a bachelor’s degree from the State University in Buffalo, New York.

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