In the last 60 years, technology professionals in India have been presented with numerous opportunities for growth and innovation. While we have been able to successfully exploit some especially in IT services, we have missed many a bus, especially on the IT products side. Unlike the earlier ones, digital is a far more intense opportunity presenting us a chance like never-before to play a key role in orchestrating the transformation that core sector firms need to undergo. Core sector organizations in manufacturing, as well as services across the world, are preparing themselves to be catapulted into an era where digital will be at the centre of their offerings. Customer expectations demand digitized products with novel affordances and seamless, personalized, contextualized omni-channel anytime service experiences.
Except for a handful of physical products that can easily be ‘digitized’ by merely embedding hi-tech elements into them, most complex customer products require a significant design rethink and a transformation in the process of making, selling and maintaining them. An example that highlights this is the automobile. A simple GPS-enablement does not really exploit the potential that a digital transformation of the car as a product offers.
Of course, it does become an important affordance should one consider it an essential piece of an Uber-like service, blurring industry boundaries. But the connected car, the autonomous car or even the fairly feasible self-monitoring car, demand significant changes to the process of assembling the car not to mention fundamental shifts in the design process itself. Add the ecosystem of automobile manufacturing as another layer, we get a fair idea of the deep dive that digital entails.
On the services side, an omni-channel retail model where the customer can view, compare, choose, buy, track, pick-up (or get delivered), or return a product crisscrossing across any of a firm’s multiple touch points, is an excellent example of where digital is heading. Again, in order to make this happen, retail firms not only need the technology architecture to operationalize the seamlessness in customer experience, but also the digital mindset which enables them to envision the possibilities.
Will the core sector be able to achieve this transformation by itself? Hardly. The demand for skilled biz-tech team support is higher now than ever before. So, what role will they be expected to play? Let me give you a couple of pointers to the shifting role of IT folks in the digital transformation of core sector firms. For one, clients no longer expect us to come and say “I can implement ERP” or “I can develop an application for you”. In fact, most clients want IT folks to have deeper business conversations with them. They expect them to bring forth ideas on the possibilities for digitized products and services and chart the course of transformation jointly. The changing nature of client-service provider contracts is a testimony to this. The way technology professionals have to engage with clients has to, therefore, be different.
Many clients also expect service providers to frame their business problems for them. Earlier, business problems were more visible, but now business problems themselves need to be identified in a collaborative manner. The distance between the manifestations of a business problem and the underlying problem itself seems to have increased as organizational systems become increasingly complex. Solutions to them, therefore, need to go beyond pure technology or even information solutions and have to thus be co-created through close engagements between clients and service providers. Indeed, will IT services firms continue to be service providers? Will they become problem solvers? Thought partners? Engaging in deeper problem framing activities with clients and co-creating business solutions?
While many technology-knowledgeable-business-executives (TKBEs – a term coined by George Colony of Forrester way back in the 2000s) in tech-enlightened firms are able to visualize the shift in products and services, what they often lack are the handles to effect the shift. That is where our IT folks are going to play a major role.
On the other side, while a large number of technology professionals recognize the need to reskill themselves as transformational agents, they find themselves significantly underprepared to make the mindset shift. We call this a mindset shift because the change from the current technology environments to the digital environment is not a step forward but more akin to the second half of the rice on the chessboard tale. It demands a change of higher order of magnitude.
By Prof. Seetharaman, Associate Professor of Management Information Systems Group, IIM Calcutta