The overarching agenda for organisations to achieve success is highly susceptible to change. Decades’ worth of IT innovation has led to continually shifting priorities for organisations, and cost-optimisation or speed can no longer be the sole focus for companies. Business differentiation is what has become critical to staying relevant. And while organisations have been looking at a tighter, more technology-driven collaboration between IT and business for a while to set themselves apart, the role of technology itself has changed, and how. Technology once supported the business. Today, technology is the business.
At the onset of IT implementation, the focus was on how automation could be used to build capabilities and reduce costs within individual functional areas or departments. The factory model for software development rose to prominence on account of its focus on efficiently automating repeatable tasks within a given functional area, directly delivering on speed at scale, as well as cost optimisation.
This form of siloed automation did — and still does, to some extent — help organisations to deliver on service and process improvement. However, in the last decade, the latest digital technologies such as cloud, internet of things (IoT) and big data have led to a new kind of disruption; companies that offer innovative plug-and-play digital services. These can vary widely, from developing software specific to monitoring and controlling manufacturing processes to solutions that help companies transition to e-commerce platforms at scale or facilitate digital payment options for customers. This disruption has overturned businesses across industries and is challenging larger legacy organisations to take a fresh look at their IT priorities. Beyond improving existing functionalities, businesses must now embrace digital-native technologies and approaches in building new infrastructure and applications, and facilitate greater innovation of products and services.
The C-suite must now look away from delivery at speed, and towards building business-differentiating capabilities. Part of this lies in understanding how a shift in skills is required to deliver on greater innovation; as workflows across functional IT areas become more and more seamless, organisations must look for talent with hybrid skillsets — business analysts that know design, testers that can code, coders with operational knowledge, and the like.
Additionally, business leaders must focus on how to achieve greater organisational agility. Much like the plug-and-play methodology that the latest technology is facilitating for new start-ups, established enterprises that are not ‘born digital’ must adopt a componentized approach to IT infrastructure, more popularly known as microservices architecture.
For instance, by adopting cloud to allow the different components of its website to function independently, a given e-commerce store could better handle surges in web traffic during a Black Friday sale, by adjusting its payment service separately to handle more shoppers at a given time, without having to re-deploy the entire website. A deep understanding of the industry and technology is essential to attain an agile, modern digital foundation built on a microservices architecture. Designers, developers and testers must understand the end-to-end business flow of each component — in this example, the user interface, payment or cart service, even the recommendations engine — that cut across all the layers of the architecture. While this will be a heavy task, the beauty that goes well beyond the intended outcome is that it will allow for a culture of co-innovation to bloom in the organisation.
Product heads with an understanding of different IT elements can work to develop an end product that is technology-driven, IT heads who understand the product end of things can help to develop solutions that better align with customer purchase habits and preferences, and so on. Making an organisation’s different functionalities more visible to different departments can help achieve greater success and innovation.
In recent months, this kind of innovation has become especially relevant — the coronavirus has become a catalyst for the development of new consumer-delivery systems across businesses, and new products and services altogether. In Singapore, it took two weeks for a start-up to develop an AI temperature screening tool that can be hooked up to smartphones, and used to reduce congestion from screening lines across shopping malls and event venues. In Japan, robotics company Donut Robotics has developed a face mask that can translate speech.
Whether it is to create something new or bring new life to something old, the cultural change needed to co-innovate and co-create first requires open mindsets about accepting the future of businesses as digitally native, and subsequently greater IT and business collaboration. It is important that the C-suite is able to make decisive and informed decisions about investing in innovation, building on the ability of their organisations to create, and reap the benefits of, new products and services.
Ideally, this culture of co-innovation will push our existing perceived industry boundaries and enable us to create completely new industries. At the end of the day, the rate at which we move towards this digital-native future will be dependent on our willingness to let go of the old, and assimilate the new.