Issue 5 : Why Digital Transformation is different from standard IT

It’s a journey, not a project

I hope you all had a good Carnival in your region. I know that here in Martinique it’s a pretty big affair with 5 days of festivities. On to this issue that gets to the heart of Digital Transformation. But before that I wanted to explain another component that is central in this subject.

Thanks for reading. Have a great weekend.

Follow up: “Someone is wrong on the Internet”

Listening to a podcast recently, one of the presenters mentioned that web apps were essentially down to Google. I immediately flinched and thought it would be best to explain how and where they came from, and in what context they are important to Digital Transformation. That’s what this issue is about. My thanks to Jean-François Nantel at the ESSEC Business School, for his invaluable input. Let’s get down to business.

Paradigm shifts

Much like the industrial revolutions we have been experiencing since, well, practically the birth of man, technological advances can be thought of in terms of paradigm shifts. Each shift brings about changes to the models of business and the usage of technology in business.

If we concentrate on more recent times, where technological advances have produced software, we note that software was often an afterthought to hardware. In fact the original Apple computers, the Apple I and Apple II, were first and foremost hardware solutions to burning questions in Steve Wozniak’s mind at the time. He designed ever more powerful and elegant solutions using the same or more limited hardware. Steve brilliantly made Apple computers colour, when others were still struggling to control monochrome computers at the same quality. But this revolution was contained in home computer land and didn’t arrive until later in business-land.

So what did business-land look like? I covered a large part of this in Issue 2:


Hardware, as the name suggests, makes up the bottom most layer of the stack. Hardware is essentially the items that physically construct the IS in its entirety. Servers, routers, switches, personal computers, printers, terminals, mobile devices are all hardware regardless of their ultimate function.

Arguably, today in our cloud world, the server and its associated support hardware (routers etc.) are the most important elements of our information systems. Various categories of serveurs are in use, with the most popular being applications servers, directory servers, communications servers, communications servers, database servers, file servers, media distribution servers and more generically, web and proxy servers.

The democratisation of the server happened in the 1990’s. Something that happened on the back of the popularity of the personal computer, companies like IBM, DEC and Compaq (now HP) disrupted the mainframe and mini business by producing what were essentially souped-up personal computers that neatly fit into to businesses of all types and sizes, providing simple server-based functions for running the company.

This gave life to the Client/Server Computing model, where we see a distinction between the roles of each part of the system. Clients present results and help formulate demands, but the bulk of the work is done at the server-level. The acceleration of Intels processors only made this model more and more compelling, with even the smallest of organisations able to have a calculation power orders of magnitude higher than anything they had imagined not even a decade ago.

That article essentially covers paradigm shifts 1 and 2; from Mainframe and dumb terminal (paradigm 1) and Client/Server computing (paradigm 2). Client/Server was made possible because of the rise of personal computers which in turn allowed the development of thousands of specialised business applications (the Client part of the model) on the local device to use the back-end data bases on the Server.

Paradigm 3 and beyond is all about Cloud. The Cloud era ushered in the generalisation of Web Apps that enabled millions of business applications on both desktop and mobile. These were, and still are, being produced and adopted at ever increasing speeds. Largely because they require lower upfront costs and offer businesses the capacity to be up-to-date with minimum fuss. Updating a legacy Cloud/Server ERP application was akin to a 50-man expedition to the North Pole, expensive, slow, disruptive with almost no guarantees that it would be successful.

Web Apps

Although Web Apps are absolutely of the same ilk of applications in the Client/Server paradigm they are fundamentally different in implementation. At its most basic a Web App is a Client in the Client/Server model, running some code locally and searching for data on the big bad back-end server.

Where they are different is that the client evolved into being a disposable piece of software itself. No installation is required, no updating, no conflict management with other locally installed applications.

Web Apps became a reality with the advent of dynamic web pages, around 1995. Previously web pages were delivered as static pages from the server in basic HTML, Hyper-Text Markup Language, which was the way to format a text file, transport it across the Internet using http (see Issue 2) and display it on a client, often called a browser. Netscape changed all of that with the introduction of client-side scripting using a newly minted programmable language (Java) invented by Sun Corporation in 1999, called JavaScript. 

This allowed the dynamic inclusion of information and the validation of input by the user by running various scripts locally in lieu of re-sending a whole new page each time a change was registered.

Then Macromedia got involved and released Flash in 1996, to be subsequently bought by Abode in 2005. Flash was a revolution for the web in that it allowed not only for dynamic text but additional real media to be integrated to a web page. We’ve all seen those old splash screens saying “Loading…”, in the late 90’s and early 2000’s they were all Flash-based. But it wasn’t until 1999 that the term Web App was officially coined under the new Java Servlet specification. 

It is only after this point that Google enters the world, being incorporated in 1998. Google developed what has become the definitive web app, search, winning on technical merit and a business model aligned to extract profit from that value chain, Advertising. Everything else Google does is either a “moonshot” or a distraction.

Why Digital Transformation is different

The title of this issue correctly explains why Digital Transformation is different, it’s a journey and not a project or destination, if you will.

Traditional IT and digitalisation is predicated on the understanding of a simple or single need, researching the solution to that need, then developing a project to procure the right hardware, software and talent to buy, install, integrate and maintain. There is a clear beginning, a clear goal and a clear end, nobody in the project is unaware of these elements. In fact in most situations these goals a clearly defined in a specifications document and signed off by all stakeholders.

Digital Transformation more closely resembles a penalty shootout whereby not only the goalposts move, but the participating teams are constantly changing and the rules of the shootout are modified in relation to the who scored or not, when and how. That’s extremely frightening for a business as the risks of failing are high. However, as I’ve previously mentioned opportunity costs are to be taken into account too. What is the risk of doing nothing?

Where Digital Transformation goes much further than traditional IT, is in the implication and necessity to change over the whole organisation and the entire value chain, from suppliers, through production and operations all the way to sales and service. Simply keeping up with technological advances — newer faster computers, mobile devices, new applications be them traditional or SaaS and new management structures — is not enough.

As you’ve no doubt spotted the biggest difficulty for an organisation is the resistance to change, which is why I personally believe that Digital Transformation is essentially one big change management exercise. Bringing people with change management skills in to the organisation — even if on a temporary basis — is key to succeeding in Digital Transformation.

One thing is sure, without C-level support in your organisation, it’s going to be extremely difficult to successfully transform your company. Many C-level executives already have too much on their plate and are woefully under educated or aware of the implications of Digital Transformation. Fortunately some recognise this and appoint specialists in those positions. Often called CDO, Chief Digital Officers, they have the responsibility for (although not limited to), driving digital adoption, culture change, change management and value chain development for their business. Again, bringing in help from outside the organisation is beneficial when their remit is specifically targeting to Digital Transformation.

Reading List

Digital in 2019: Global Internet Use Accelerates - We Are Social UK

Regularly We Are Social and Hootsuite publish a comprehensive study on the state of digital in the World. 2019 is no exception, with fascinating statistiques such as;

..more than one million people coming online for the first time each day since January 2018

There are now 5.112 billion unique mobile users in the world, which represents a penetration of 67% of the entire world. Interesting, is that you can drill-down to individual countries, yes, including the Caribbean to get a snapshot of the importance of the internet and most importantly, mobile. For example, internet penetration in Western Europe is at 94%, the Caribbean lags substantially behind at 51% with only Sub-Saharan Africa behind, excluding South Africa. I highly recommend you take a look at your country to understand where people are on the internet and what it is they do.

Saint Lucia Tourism Authority Launches its New Interactive Website - OECS

The Saint Lucia Tourism Authority has launched a new interactive website with better ergonomics and better search capabilities. Users wishing to discover the island and what it has to offer can find out what’s going on — from events, tours, accommodations and eateries. It is more integrated than the previous website, allowing users to go directly through to booking excursions, etc. The site is trying to aggregate suppliers (hotels, restaurants, entertainment providers) with customers (tourists and locals). In order for it to work it needs to become ‘the’ place to go to learn about Saint Lucia, and that is a tall order when you consider the competition from the likes of Expedia, Airbnb and the already internet-enabled tour operators.

Calls for more investment in statistics systems, focus on literacy - CARICOM

From a Digital Transformation point of view, this call for more investment in teaching around the importance of statistics and the development of better statistics around the Caribbean is very encouraging. Data is the basis of good decision making, but that can only happen if there is competence to better interpret that data. Basic statistics knowledge can go a long way towards achieving that goal.

The Future is Digital Newsletter is intended for a single recipient, but I encourage you to forward it to people you feel may be interested in the subject matter.

Thanks for being a supporter, Have an excellent day.

Matthew Cowen @matthewcowen