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So what’s all the hoopla about “digital disruption?”(And what does it mean for innovators?)

April 21, 2017 | Michael Dieckmann, Chief IT Strategist

Article about digital disruption

Digitalization.  Digital business.  The digital workplace.  Digital transformation.  Digital disruption.  These and similar terms are flying around everywhere on the net, in business and technology leadership books, and in materials targeted at innovators.  Firms want to help us “kick-start digital transformation,” “survive digital disruption,” “understand the ten models of digital transformation” (what, only ten?), or (my personal favorite) “move beyond digital disruption to digital cohesion.”

In fact, if we are seeking to innovate (or in some cases just to survive) - in business, in service, in learning, in performance improvement, or a host of other fields - then today we must be very concerned about the digital forces that are affecting society and the workplace.  As innovators, we can understand these forces, and harness them for improvement and advantage by cultivating a digital mindset.  Or we can ignore them, and perhaps suffer “disruption” ourselves.  So, what is digital?  What are the major digital forces in play today enabling transformative innovation?  And how can they be disruptive?

Digital has often been used to refer to information technology in general.  But in recent years, digital usually identifies a collection of technologies that are all based on the foundation of the “almost everywhere” presence of the Internet in general and high-bandwidth wireless network access (cellular, wifi) in particular.  This ubiquitous network availability has led to “the cloud,” the easy access to software capabilities and technology platforms through the Internet.  Via the cloud, things that once required substantial investments in technology infrastructure, systems, and support staff are now available to anyone via a few clicks and a credit card.  In the cloud, all components of computing have become services - software as a service (SaaS), infrastructure as a service (IaaS), platform as a service (PaaS), communications as a service (CaaS), or the latest “everything as a service” (XaaS).  The entry barrier to information technology has been eliminated, and the smallest organization (or an individual) can access the same technology capabilities used by the largest corporations.

Through and alongside the cloud, companion digital forces are at play.  Primary ones include the web and social media, via which anyone can communicate, collaborate, and keep in touch, and where everyone can now be their own publisher.  Wireless networking has led to the prevalence of mobile computing (smartphone, tablet, smartwatch, fitness tracker) so that now the majority of user-held devices connected to the Internet are worn or carried.  Combine wireless with GPS and smart devices are always aware of their precise location on the planet.  The ease of connecting any device to the cloud (everything from cars to home appliances to tennis shoes to food labels) combined with the ability to “sensorize” everything is leading to a world where every product can provide data, or use data for built-in intelligence - the so-called Internet of Things.  Combined with Big Data, the ability to collect, store, and process massive amounts of information, and the growth of practical artificial intelligence (think Siri, Amazon Alexa, or Google Home), the Internet of Things has opened the boundaries of contextual awareness.  Now, with our increasingly wearable technology and the capability of network-connected intelligence in any product, we are beginning to live in a merged physical/virtual reality where our ability to immediately tap rich information about our context is almost unlimited.  Our smartphone can show us the five closest restaurants, their menus, and the latest reviews of each.  Our wristwatch beeps us when it’s time to stand up and move around.  Our refrigerator texts us to tell us the milk has gone bad.  Wearable exercise monitors and health trackers are on the verge of making remote medical diagnosis a practical reality.

All of these capabilities are developing at dizzying speed.  Further, as we have now reached the stage where the majority segment of the workforce - the millennials - have never known a world without the Internet, these capabilities are no longer novel, but expected.  Digital is transforming the customer experience and the workplace.  Products, services, processes, workflows, and strategies without a digital component will soon be obsolete, if they aren’t already.

There is much, much more to transformative innovation than “think digital.”  Not every problem has at its heart a digital solution.  But any innovator who is not employing “think digital,” at least in idea exploration, is in danger of being disrupted into irrelevance.

Michael Dieckmann is Chief IT Strategist for the UWF Innovation Institute, where he leads the IT Strategy Lab and serves as chief technology officer for the Florida Virtual Campus.