I have thrown away all my textbooks. Everything. Even the ones that I wrote myself! I decided that they are just not needed any more. Not even for decoration on my bookcase. But this clean sweep wasn’t about making space on the shelves. It was a critical statement that I needed to make to myself about facing up to the broader impacts of the pandemic, relying too much on the past, and the importance of looking ahead in times of digital disruption.
As I cleared the shelves and emptied the unopened boxes from the garage that had followed us on the last 3 house moves, I tried to recall the contexts within which they were acquired. Many were in pristine condition and had been put to one side unread. But several were showing signs of heavy use, and a few contained yellow stickies crammed with notes. My C programming guide from Kernighan and Richie had so many stains it looked like it had been dropped in a puddle. The various UML guides had clearly been used and abused. And Fred Brook’s “The Mythical Man-Month” seemed to have more of my comments on the pages than the author’s.
It is quite amazing what materials I had amassed after 40 years of trying to understand more about the world of software engineering, systems delivery, business improvement, and digital transformation. Included in this stash were details of forgotten technologies overtaken by events, descriptions of process improvement activities in companies that no longer exist, and manuals for programming languages nobody uses any more. All of them had their time and place. But it is not now, and it is not here.
Not everything in these books is out-of-date. Of course, there are many important and relevant ideas described in these materials that remain critical to how we see the world today. It would be churlish and ungrateful of me to suggest otherwise. Several core concepts that have guided technology development and delivery over the years will be as essential to organizations in the digital transformation era as they were in advancing rapid application development, model-based software engineering, 4th generation programming languages, business process reengineering, and a host of other ideas. My study and engagement with these ideas has been an essential part of my life and career.
Yet, there are three key reasons why I believe this clear out was needed.
First, digitization of content has made a significant shift in why, what, how, and when knowledge is created, published, and consumed. It is a wave of change we have been witnessing for some time, often with a certain amount of scepticism. But as an educator, author, and parent my position has recently moved considerably to accept that the default approaches to how to work with data and information is digital, dispersed, and discrete.
This differs significantly from previous times. I have authored or co-authored almost a dozen books over the past 3 decades through a variety of different channels. My experiences in creating these materials and interacting with various learners using them have been useful to provide me with a viewpoint on the publishing process. The main shift I have seen in that time has been away from multi-year heavyweight publication processes and toward more rapid delivery of information in ways that are more accessible to consumers.
Most obviously, this shift is seen in how information is consumed as digital media such as ebooks, videos, and audio files. However, the wider availability of information online also has had its impact on the business models behind the publishing of information affecting areas as broad as pricing, timeliness, provenance, and authenticity. To write your MBA essay or build your practical knowledge, is a 5 year old textbook published by Pearson and written by a business school professor in Exeter really a better source than a recent article from a Microsoft researcher or a McKinsey partner? In many situations the answer is no.
Second, much of this past wisdom is now irrelevant to a post-pandemic digital age. The digital revolution we have been experiencing has not only accelerated with the impact of covid, but it has also catapulted us toward a new set of values, redefined how we view the role of digital technologies in the workplace, and significantly changed daily habits and working practices.
The experiences of the pandemic have not only served to accelerate the adoption of digital technology, they also have caused a significant reassessment of core values across a range of factors, from the responsibilities we have to provide social services and medical care for all to the implications of decisions we take on the future sustainability of the planet. In what has been declared as the “Great Reset”, organizations undergoing a digital transformation are required to respond to these concerns to ensure they not only meet their current needs, but also live up to much broader responsibilities.
The focus for organizations today has shifted to address a new reality. Their strategies and delivery models must ensure business resilience in the context of massive uncertainty while recognizing their responsibilities to the environment and balancing these needs with the challenge of enhancing employees’ personal wellbeing. Echoing discussions from some years ago on the value of adopting a “triple bottom line” of planet-profit-people, by viewing future sustainability across these dimensions we see a familiar set of concerns re-emerging. Each brings its own demands. Yet, ensuring our organizations are sustainable not only requires attention directed at these areas individually, it also highlights more complex considerations about how to balance effort and demonstrate aligned priorities across all three of them.
As the world adjusts to this great reset, the implications for all organizations will be considerable in how they define their strategies, deploy their resources, and delivery products and services to meet the enhanced expectations being set. New approaches and fresh ideas are needed. We will not be successful evolving slowly and incrementally from previous ways of thinking.
Third, is a recognition that significant change requires you to give up what you know to make a jump into the unknown. This comes with risks. And it can only be undertaken with a mentality and attitude that doesn’t look back but that sees we have no alternative.
Some years ago, this approach to change was characterized as a “who moved my cheese?” moment. In a parable that highlighted the need to adapt to change, this story provides a perspective on what happens when your environment is disrupted and you need to make decisions about how to respond. It highlights the way different people respond and the consequences if you ignore the effects or if you move forwards.
For many people, including at times in my own work, the temptation has been to rely too much on previous ways of thinking and assuming they still hold true rather than starting afresh. It is something we see often in organizations wanting to “go digital”. The poor state of digital transformation is put down to barriers to digital adoption, a readiness gap facing leaders promoting digital innovation, a high failure rate of digital strategies, a disparity in digital adoption across different industries, difficulties aligning digital maturity to financial performance, and so on. But perhaps it can more succinctly be said that they simply started in the wrong place and with the wrong attitude. This is something that often requires drastic action, not minor tweaks or careful steps.
For many individuals and organizations, the digital transformation journey has been long and difficult. Whether you began with explorations in digital technology, as I did, or via another route, we all build on the shoulders of many great people and ideas that came before us. Yet, we cannot be bound to them in a way that forces us to continually look behind us rather than focus on what lies ahead. Success in driving digital transformation will demand that we keep firmly focused on the future. And that may require some painful but necessary breaks with the past.