At Intellyx, we often talk about the transition from the Industrial Era to the Digital Era, but other than the transformation of the technology itself, the details have been rather sketchy. It’s time to fill in some of the blanks.
This transition has been going on for decades, of course. Another name for the Digital Era is the Information Age, which started at the end of World War II. Yet, while computers and the Internet have fundamentally changed business in several complex and multifaceted ways, we still run our organizations following the familiar patterns of the Industrial Era.
With the modern notion of digital transformation, however, enterprises are chipping away at the fundamental organizational and operational structures that have been with us since the nineteenth century or earlier.
One remarkable casualty: the business process. Business processes have become so ingrained in how we envision large organizations operating and the roles people play within them that relegating them to the scrap heap is almost unimaginable, and unquestionably transformative.
In the Digital Era, however, everything you thought you knew about business processes, and thus how human effort drives productivity and profit in the organizations we work for, is wrong.
The most significant impact of the Industrial Revolution was how it transformed how people worked. Handwork gave way to the operation of machines – first in factories, but over the years, machine operation came to pervade services industries as well, from banking to transportation to government.
In the early twentieth century, Frederick Winslow Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management followed, crystallizing the distinct roles of workers and management within this industrial context, focusing in particular on how to improve the means of production by making workers more efficient.
This thinking led to the invention of the business process. Using machinery operation as the template, Scientific Management extended processes across the enterprise.
In the Industrial Era, therefore, human work consisted of such process instances strung together, like cogs in a wheel, unceasingly cranking out profits for their companies.
Today, we have a reasonably solid idea of what we mean by a business process. They consist of a sequence of steps representing tasks or actions, with a clear beginning and an end, which represents a business goal.
Such process frequently have branches and error conditions, suggesting a flowchart as the best way to visually represent them.
As part of their day-to-day work, then, people must execute such processes as though each flowchart were a large hopscotch game, where everybody’s job is to hop from one square to another.
As business process management (BPM) software came on the scene, such software represented each such traversal as a process instance.
After all, many people might be executing a particular process at the same time, each of them potentially at a different step.
Every business process must have a business purpose – an organizational goal that lines up with the profit driver of every private sector company (or mission priority within the public sector).
This profit-centric alignment, however, is an Industrial Era holdover. In the Digital Era, organizations must be people-centric.
We no longer want to treat people as cogs in a wheel. We must free ourselves from our business process thinking. Instead, we start with the individual – and thus instead of processes, we must focus on journeys.
You may already be familiar with customer journeys: the representation of the sequence of interactions a person has with a company or brand. Customer journeys consist of a sequence of ‘moments,’ recognizing that when people use a device to interact with an organization, they do so when and where they choose – not when or where the company chooses.
In the Digital Era, we extend the notion of customer journeys to everyone – employees, partners, suppliers, anyone involved in an organization. Instead of the ‘customer journey’ terminology, therefore, let’s generalize the notion to the ‘digital journey.’
Such digital journeys are different from business processes in several fundamental ways. The person usually decides on the order of steps, or moments, rather than the organization laying them out beforehand.
Digital journeys also frequently have no clear end, and many not have a clear beginning, either.
Most importantly, each journey is unique to the individual. Businesses can group them together in many ways for various purposes, but the groupings don’t define the journeys the way that business processes define their instances.
Since every journey is unique and each individual decides their own moments, a flowchart metaphor is a poor fit for a digital journey. Instead, characterize digital journeys as depending on constraints and dependencies.
A constraint is a limitation on the behavior within a journey that applies across the journey – but only takes effect when the conditions for the constraint are met.
A dependency is when one task or activity must take place before another can occur.
Here’s an example: let’s say your journey is through an airport (yes, digital journeys can be literal journeys!).
When you walk in, you might check in at a kiosk, get in line, or perhaps go to a store – it’s up to you. But you must still conform to certain constraints, for example, you must have a boarding pass to go through security, and you must pass through security to go to a gate.
There are dependencies as well: getting a boarding pass depends upon having a valid ticket, for example.
As long as people conform to the constraints and dependencies, then, they are welcome to do whatever they want in whatever order they choose.
Constraints and dependencies, of course, are nothing new. In particular, Eliyahu M. Goldratt fleshed out the Theory of Constraints in the mid-1980s.
However, Goldratt placed his theory into the context of business processes – and to be sure, processes are subject to constraints and dependencies as well.
In the Digital Era, in contrast, we must free the considerations of constraints and dependencies from the business process context, instead applying them to the unique priorities and behavior of each individual.
Our airport example makes this difference clear. In the Industrial Era, people had to check in at the airline ticket counter to get a boarding pass – steps in a business process.
In the Digital Era, however, people have many ways to obtain boarding passes at different times, both at home or in the airport. This flexibility is human-centric rather than process-centric, illustrating the need to focus on the digital journey instead of the process.
In the 1980s, of course, technology wasn’t up to the task of managing such digital journeys. Now it is.
Digital journeys are clearly different enough from business processes that yesterday’s BPM software is no longer adequate. We can, however, manage digital journeys in other ways, either individually or in groups.
For example, managing the journeys of everyone with a boarding pass would be relatively straightforward, even though in today’s digital world, people can use their smartphones, print the passes at home, or use a kiosk.
Digital retailers already manage customer journeys by demographic segment – an approach that we as consumers often find too limiting. Just because I’m in my fifties doesn’t mean I want AARP ads in my stream, after all.
Ideally, of course, companies would manage ‘segments of one’ – what we at Intellyx call individualization. In fact, you can think of individualization as fundamental to the notion of a digital journey, and by extension, to the Digital Age in general.
Best of all, we now have the technology to support this goal – if only enterprises would get their digital transformation act together.
No more bulk ‘do not reply’ emails. No more tone-deaf retargeting. No more ‘press 1 to wait on hold.’
The technology part of this story has become the easy part – but organizations won’t successfully enter the Digital Era until they move away from business processes.
Will all business processes – and BPM software – be obsolete in the Digital Era? The answer: it’s not quite so black and white. Just as industrialization didn’t entirely displace handwork, digital journeys aren’t going to fully replace business processes.
What is already happening, however, is a shift in expectation to a ‘digital journey first’ mentality. Digitally transformed companies realize that to put customers and employees first, they must treat them as individuals who wish to interact on their own terms.
Perhaps the most difficult aspect of this transition from the Industrial Era to the Digital Era is the shift from profit-centricity to human-centricity. After all, isn’t making money the true goal of any for-profit company?
The answer: in the Digital Era, the only way to achieve the profit goals of the enterprise is to successfully move to a human-centric model. Focusing on profits over people is counterproductive, uncompetitive, and in the long run, fatal.
The companies that will profit the most in the Digital Era are paradoxically the ones that don’t put profit at the center of their efforts.
Be warned: the technology connotation of ‘digital’ is nothing but a smokescreen. Digital journeys – and the Digital Era writ large – are about people. Get this right and profits will follow.
Copyright © Intellyx LLC. Intellyx publishes the Agile Digital Transformation Roadmap poster, advises companies on their digital transformation initiatives, and helps vendors communicate their agility stories. As of the time of writing, none of the organizations mentioned in this article are Intellyx customers. Image credit: Ruth Hartnup.