The Digital Age is a Quarter Century Old and Transformations are Still Taking Place

Stephen DeAngelis

September 30, 2019

Twenty-five is generally considered an age at which people have matured sufficiently to contribute to society and get on with life. The Digital Age is now a quarter century old, but many pundits believe the transformations it has spawned remain in their infancy or adolescence. Former IBM executive Irving Wladawsky-Berger traces the origins of the Digital Age to the release of the Netscape browser in December 1994.[1] He writes, “The browser made it much, much easier for the average person to access information over the internet, sparking the explosive growth of users, websites and online applications. This was a truly historic point, marking the transition from the industrial economy of the past couple of centuries to a new kind of digital economy.” Regardless of digital transformations’ current level of maturity, Rick Veague, CTO at IFS North America, asserts digital transformations have nonetheless made remarkable headway in the recent past. He notes a 2016 Vanson Bourne and Dell survey found “only one in three businesses had implemented elements of digital transformation.”[2] He adds, however, “Just three years later, IDG’s 2019 State of Digital Business Transformation suggests 93% of traditional, established businesses — and 89% of startups — are putting in place digital business plans.” He continues, “Of course, there is no standard definition for digital transformation.”

The Digital Age

In his article, Wladawsky-Berger cites the findings from a report published by the McKinsey Global Institute entitled Twenty-Five Years of Digitization. He writes, “The report offers 10 insights to help business leaders navigate this still relatively new digital world.” Those insights are:

  • Large economic potential is linked to digitization — and much of it is yet to be captured.
  • Digital superstars are rising far beyond the U.S. big four and China’s big three.
  • Digital natives are calling the shots.
  • Digital changes everything — even industry boundaries.
  • Agile is the new way to compete.
  • Playing the platform economy can boost earnings.
  • Self-cannibalization and innovation are a necessity for digital reinvention.
  • Going after the right M&A is key.
  • Effective management of digital transformation is vital — but challenging.
  • Leveraging and transitioning from digital to new frontier technologies is an imperative.

Three of the most important insights they note are the importance of agile enterprises, the need to adopt new frontier technologies, and that digital changes everything. Gijs Dullaert (@gijsdullaert), chairman at AIMMS, writes, “A few years ago, I came across a book called Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux. In this book, Laloux explains how every time humanity has shifted to a new stage of consciousness, it has also invented a radically more productive organizational model. He argues that we are currently living in such a shift in consciousness.”[3] According to Dullaert, the new state of consciousness requires a more agile organizational model than previous business models. As an example of an area that benefits from agile organization, he looks at supply chain operations. He writes:

“In a supply chain context, leaders have been traditionally focused on accountability, predictability and risk minimization. A hierarchical organizational model makes sense in that context as it gives leaders more control over every-day decision-making. However, as Gartner notes, it also makes it ‘difficult for supply chains to collaborate and adapt in a disruptive digital world.’ Gartner recommends that organizations start moving beyond the organizational hierarchy by shifting from ‘management by control’ to ‘leadership through governance.’ They also recommend that supply chain leaders ‘break down boundaries’ by using ‘teams that cut across traditional functions, geographies and business units.'”

Agile organizations can also benefit by leveraging cognitive technologies, like the Enterra Enterprise Cognitive System™. Changing business models and leveraging frontier technologies does, indeed, change everything. Chris O’Neal, a technology evangelist at Workfront, lists a few ways organizations implementing digital tools to manage modern work will change over the next few years.[4] They are:

  • Better alignment of work to strategy, ensuring that people are working on the right things that have been prioritized by the business.
  • More visibility into how various contributors’ work comes together to understand how deadlines and output work together.
  • More focus on results — how the time spent working actually impacts the business.
  • Better work planning and requirements gathering — if focus is put into gathering what people need to accomplish when they are planning / requesting work, there will be less need for meetings/ emails / ad hoc work.

Because digital enterprises are better aligned and democratize access to data, O’Neal concludes, “There will be better understanding of productivity levels in the workplace as teams can see how their work ties into the bigger company/department/team strategy.”

Looking ahead in the Digital Age

O’Neal is one of many pundits who believes workplaces will become more productive thanks to frontier technologies. “Over the next decade,” writes Roberto Torres (@TorresLuzardo), “expect data analytics and AI to augment workers’ efficiency, as companies rely on leading tech to beat out competitors. … By 2029, industries will see leading companies leverage advanced analytics and supercharge their workforce with automation.”[5] O’Neal bases his observations on Gartner’s Hype Cycle 2019 report. The most important frontier technology, according to the report, is artificial intelligence. “What is seeping in everything else is AI,” Brian Burke, research Vice President at Gartner told Torres. “We talk about AI as one trend, but it bleeds into all of the other trends.” Torres reports the Gartner study evaluated 2,000 individual technologies and identified five key trends set to shape decision-makers priorities over the coming five to ten years. Those trends are:

1. Sensing and mobility: “From 3D-sensing cameras to augmented reality displays or autonomous vehicles, sensors and AI will combine to let enterprises gain new kinds of insights.”

2. Augmented human: “Advanced algorithms will offer guidance to humans as they perform tasks, rather than remove them from decision-making processes, said Burke. Augmentation will be physical — like prosthetic limbs — but also cognitive.”

3. Postclassical computing and communications: “Low-orbit satellites and 5G networks are slated to drive economic growth in underserved regions and countries, which means new opportunities for industry growth.”

4. Digital ecosystems: “The network of vendors and partners companies have to interact with won’t become any simpler. To navigate the field, companies will turn to blockchain technology for a trust-enabled solution.”

5. Advanced AI and analytics: “Democratized access to artificial intelligence platforms — under a service-based model — is slated to have a ‘significant’ impact in the way companies operate, Burke said.”

Torres cautions, “Though AI’s business impact seems inevitable, companies will first need to overcome hurdles to properly implement AI and enjoy its bountiful promises.”

Concluding thoughts

Veague asserts, “The reinvention of business models and new revenue opportunities with digital technology at the core, often with the realization of new business models, arises from new business opportunities not possible prior to digital transformation. … The next surge of digital transformation is already underway, and companies that ride the wave will surge ahead while those sitting out will be left behind.” Wladawsky-Berger concludes, “Leveraging and transitioning from digital to new frontier technologies is an imperative. Frontier technologies, including AI and blockchain, are dependent on a strong digital backbone.” In other words, don’t anticipate leap-frogging technologies. Digitizing, then transforming to a digital enterprise, are foundations upon which future agile organizations will be built as the Digital Age continues to mature.

Footnotes
[1] Irving Wladawsky-Berger, “Looking Ahead After a Quarter Century Into the Digital Age,” The Wall Street Journal, 16 August 2019.
[2] Rick Veague, “Digital Transformation Is Further Along Than You Think,” Forbes, 29 August 2019.
[3] Gijs Dullaert, “Reinventing Organizations to Drive Agility in the Digital Age,” AIMMS, 20 August 2019.
[4] Chris O’Neal, “How advanced technologies can boost worker productivity and creativity,” Information Management, 14 August 2019.
[5] Roberto Torres, “Gartner depicts a business world reshaped by AI in 2019 Hype Cycle,” CIO Dive, 29 August 2019.