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Digital Darwinism: Adapt & Evolve Or Become Extinct.

October 14, 2014

Have you heard of digital Darwinism? It’s a fact that technology (and society in general) are both evolving faster than most businesses can cope with. We’ve all observed large and rapid change over the last few years and the paradigm is now changing so fast that practically no-one is safe. Thanks to the rise of new technologies and processes (and even the unexpected use of existing technologies, such as JavaScript and non-SQL databases) many large and well established companies have suddenly found themselves on the back foot. Some have simply ceased to exist. What can we all do to ensure our organisations don’t end up going the way of the dinosaurs? How do we save ourselves from getting our lunch money stolen by young, disruptive upstarts?

Just a few years ago (when even Blockbuster was still around), Netflix was just a DVD mailing company. Not being such a big corporate ship that it takes forever to turn; they suddenly decided to go completely digital and stream their content direct to their customers. Consequently, Netflix is now one of the major players in the home entertainments market (and the same is true of LoveFilm since they quickly followed suit). Netflix are now taking on the corporate broadcast and cable companies by producing their own exclusive content. And the corporate big boys are scared.

Uber and Lyft are other good examples of relatively new companies who are biting hard into an existing sector entrenched in the traditional way of doing things. Leveraging the always-on, always connected, multi-device customer; they both deal directly the users via apps (which show how many taxi cars are in the area and which are available for hire). This enables them to be much more flexible and cost effective for the customer and in doing so they become more relevant. Diametrically; drivers can bid for customers using an in-car app which delivers further value to the end user by driving down prices. This model is significantly disrupting the existing and traditional taxi and car hire business. Need convincing that any established industry with a long proven business model can’t suddenly be disrupted overnight? Look what happened in the music and book industries. Look what happened to the photo shops on the high street. In fact, look what’s happened to the high street full stop!

Fundamentally, businesses need to be more agile. That’s easier said than done though and, to get to this state, we need to drop the hierarchical and tightly coupled business processes that exist within most companies. From a technology perspective, who are the right people in the organization to make this change? Traditionally it was the Enterprise Architects. However, the practices used by Enterprise Architects are not, at present, compatible with the kind of rapid and continuous change that is needed in today’s commercially fluid landscape. The only solution is to move to “Agile Architecture”. With an agile architecture the whole organisation is in a constant state of readiness for change and is able to adapt, at very short notice, to new opportunities. It’s the equivalent of DefCon 1.

Digital Darwinism: DefCon1

Moving to ‘Agile Architecture’ is a process that doesn’t necessarily have a starting point or an ending point. Agile business is a journey not a destination and it involves a change in both attitude and outlook. Once a company is more agile it is in a better position to adapt to changes and exploit new opportunities as soon as they arise.

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@MindPointUK “Give people the right tools and get out of their way”

It isn’t about buying your way to a more agile business by just getting the latest software or services though. Your teams have to embrace a different way of working else you will end up with zombie teams.  Equally, it isn’t about making your teams more agile with one hand but holding them back with the other by technology (or the lack of it). You have to  transform both at the same time. In information architecture circles we used to talk about the “technology temperature” of a company. Not enough technology would freeze the business. Introducing new technology would raise the temperature. Too much change too fast and people would overheat. Raise it a little at a time and people would acclimatize. This doesn’t – and can’t – happen anymore because those days have gone.

The days of being able to just optimise our way to a better business have passed so how do we introduce change to an organisation without also introducing chaos?  Well, bite the bullet amigos because the only way to be responsive enough in business today is to use contemporary and disruptive methods. This is digital Darwinism in action and let’s use evolution as an analogy. When species are tightly coupled into their environment they often depend on a particular foodstuff or relationships to survive. When things change rapidly, it’s actually the creatures who are less reliant on their environment that are most likely to adapt and survive. Businesses have to foster looser connectivity. Radical change calls for rapid response and companies that evolve at a slower rate are, in the current economic climate, leaving themselves exposed to outright extinction.

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@MindPointUK “The higher a company’s level of digital maturity the better its financial performance is likely to be”

Digital maturity is of paramount importance to business today. That maturity is measured by an organisation’s investment in technology-enabled initiatives and in the ability of its management to foster the correct practices and capabilities within their organisation to manage the digital transformation. Bloomberg’s Agile Architecture MetaModel is very relevant here. In it they discuss the levels of digital maturity in companies and their ultimate recommendation is that, to progress from a relatively immature digital company to a mature one, you have to embrace the cloud, loosen the coupling of business processes and implement data and agile architectures.

Many studies of digital transformation end with the organisation adopting cloud based service orientated architecture (SOA) solutions. That’s not the end of the process though because the real game changer is understanding that the only way to remain competitive is to embrace continuous business transformation. As we said, it’s a journey not a destination and the goal is not to just transform from pre-cloud architectures to on-cloud, it’s actually to move to a more dynamic state where change, both in terms of technology and working practices, is continuous and never ending. Continuous delivery obviously applies now more than ever in the software industry because frequent updates to apps are the expected norm. The model is disrupt yourself before you are disrupted by others and this mantra also applies in the world of services.

Of course, we’re SharePoint experts at MindPoint so we’re sure you’re asking how do these broad brush strokes map onto what is happening in the SharePoint and Office 365 space? Well, Microsoft have been working hard on their SOA cloud based offerings like Office 365 and Azure. Moving to Office 365 in the cloud certainly fulfils one of the requirements of increasing the digital maturity of your company but it only addresses some of the problems. If you don’t re-organise your organisation now to allow for agile processes then you will end up, as described earlier, with “zombie” teams who have all the technology but who don’t understand how to get the best from it.

To be a more agile company you should consider making your teams less hierarchical and controlled. Decentralise your teams. Allow for more autonomy within the teams themselves. Ensure your governance and management model is that of an enabler and coordinator instead of just directing each part of a process. Create an environment where teams can be agile enough to alter their behaviour on an ongoing basis. Think more in terms of delivery to the customer and less on the traditional “busy work” that companies engage in which waste huge amounts of resources and don’t actually add to your bottom line. Microsoft are finally starting to offer tools which allow more traditional enterprise companies to move to this agile model (and non-enterprise business too). Looking to the future, Microsoft will also, in all likelihood, integrate further innovations from the Maturity MetaModel into their online offerings.

Your choice as an organisation is Darwinist in the extreme. Adapt and evolve or die.

MindPoint Digital Darwinism

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