John Sheridan

John is CEO of Digital Business insights!

Whatever happened to solid ground?

The digital revolution is remorseless, disruptive and destructive.

Yet, it doesn't seem that way on the surface. It seems fun, exciting, stimulating and supportive. It connects us with our friends and families. It helps us at work and play.

It presents us with a constant stream of new devices, some beautifully designed and some less so. But they keep coming – phones, computers, laptops, drones, games consoles, GPS, watches, cameras and so on.

But underneath the novel and the provocative, the revolution continues at a deeply disruptive level changing the environment in which we all operate.

And the business landscape that once was reasonably easy to describe and define is now foggy and obscure.

The landscape that once had many reassuring milestones, KPIs, signposts, strategies, plans and objectives, has become an uncomfortable place to navigate, more like an unstable, choppy seascape full of surprises, sudden weather shifts and changes.

Whatever happened to good old solid ground?

The environment has changed. From stability to disruption. From planning to scanning. "What's out there?" "What do I need to take seriously?" "What can I safely ignore...for now?"

Many people are sitting and waiting, hoping that things will go "back to normal" They won't.

Disruption is the new operational condition and things will only get worse.

How to you create strategies in a disruptive environment?

That is an interesting question.

There are comments regularly on Linkedin from the tradition advisors, accountants and government bemoaning the fact that most SMEs don't have a digital strategy.

But is this a sign of a failure and oversight or a sign of pragmatism?

Are SMEs being dumb, smart or just realistic?

When you don't know what's coming, why it is coming, where it is coming from and what it intends to do with you, or to you when it gets here, it is probably a waste of time to make firm plans.

Or even write a digital strategy. Where would you start? More importantly where would you stop?

But you can be wary. Aware. Beware.

Before you do anything. Read. Talk to your peers. Try to understand what is driving the revolution. Understand the principles. This will help you to recognise the changes when they come and they will come, big and small and to discriminate between the two.

Open up. Get flexible fast. Get agile. Work on improving your internal systems...but at the same time appreciate that your external relationships are going to change – customer, supplier, competitor and collaborator.

All these relationships must now be constantly under review. They will become less solid and reliable. You cannot take them for granted. They may evaporate completely.

The premise for these relationships will change as the nature of the engagement changes.

There are companies and individuals in countries across the planet working on initiatives that won't just change their fortunes but which will affect us all, wherever we may be.

We have already experienced the impact of just a few ICT companies on the way we work and play – Amazon, Apple, Google, Linkedin, Uber.

There are many more companies now working on the next stage. As we universally connect and interconnect, new opportunities continue to arise that stimulate interest and action.

Most of us are not involved in the creation of new disruptive technologies, devices, platforms and applications. But all of us ARE being and WILL be affected by them as they arrive.

The solid ground has become liquid. We all now operate in an ocean of disruption and change. The old rules make way for the new rules.

And 20th century maps, business guidebooks, timetables and advisories don't make much sense on the ocean.

You are in a new fluid environment. Understand it.

If you understand the drivers, the currents of change, then it is a lot easier to appreciate your status in this new environment.

Here are some clues.

The currents of digital change push constantly towards more connection, more collaboration and more integration.

Fast, easy access to information has shifted power from vendor to customer.

There is pressure on every "middleman" role in society no matter how sophisticated that role may appear to be – doctor, lawyer, politician, government, accountant, publisher...

There is conflict between command and control and the push towards collaboration and shared value.

These are the trends.

Transparency, authenticity, honesty, trust.

These are the values.

But it's a revolution, so there is pushback and resistance from the status quo. And that creates the turmoil.

However, it is just as possible to navigate on the disruptive ocean as on stable land.

In the physical world, we have done it successfully for a few centuries and the same principles can be applied in the current state of digital turbulence.

Who are we, where are we, how much fuel, what is the condition of our vessel, do we have a well-trained crew and are we on course?

The upside is, that if we have been adopting technology with wisdom then we can access all this information immediately.

But it does require a change of attitude, considering we were blown of course yesterday and last night - and it happens every night and every day. The weather isn't going to change. So we have to.

And it actually doesn't matter. As long as we know where we are right now we can readjust course and keep going.

That is your digital strategy. Knowing where you are and where you want to go. But knowing where you want to go in the new world, not the old.

"I want to go back to how things were" is not an option.

"I want to go to where we went last year" may not be either.

Being flexible about destination is absolute. It is farming not architecture remember. Your intended port of call may move.

Consider the weather and what may be coming your way (it could be anything). You may then decide to go somewhere else and adjust your destination completely.

A lot of large companies in Australia are struggling with this right now.

But with no roads. No milestones. No signposts, No KPIs, no maps.

Ship's captain not taxi driver. Gardening not architecture. It's a different paradigm.

For startups and small businesses this state is familiar.

The revolution is far more uncomfortable for bigger organisations.

And many, many CEOs and Boards still try to navigate as though conditions haven't changed and adjust their results at the end of the financial year without really understanding what they have just done.

Let me repeat that. And adjust their results at the end of the year...

Massaging the disconnect between the business plan and results. Not questioning the out of date methodology in the first place.

Prediction has always been difficult. Ask any economist. They are the masters at getting prediction wrong, whilst still retaining their jobs as pundits in our society. Never underestimate the "emperor's new clothes" syndrome. It gets even worse in revolutions.

Slippage is inevitable. Course correction is the new reality, tacking is often the only way forwards.

Some organisations in our country understand and deal with the weather, water and disruption every day. Farmers. And we can learn a lot from them.

A few years ago, I met with some cane growers on their farms to look at what they were doing.

It was impressive. One farmer had shaped his land to ensure that any water runoff was captured in one place and pumped back through his irrigation system. No waste. It had cost him a lot of money to install the irrigation but he was beginning to see a return on his investment.

He had mapped the condition of his soil right across the land and as a result could apply fertiliser exactly where the need was greatest, rather than distribute equal quantities across the block.

Because he captured the runoff, he also effectively prevented any fertiliser being released accidentally into the local streams with the potential for it impacting the reef. And he could prove it.

The quality of the cane was measured as it was harvested and related directly to where it had grown on the land.

So the farmer could then look at the yield across the whole block in his farm management system and plan for the future with real evidence. And confidence.

Precision agriculture.

Another farmer had shelter belts of large trees growing around his fields, which was a bit unusual because cane farmers often remove them so that planting and harvesting machinery can work unimpeded.

When I asked him why, he told me his history in South Australia where salinity had driven him from his farm and he did not intend the same thing to happen in Queensland. In the records, the local water table had risen progressively over the last twenty years and he had decided to slow this before it began to impact his crop.

So he had planted trees around his block to the astonishment of his neighbours. They grew, put down deep roots and began their work as natural "pumps" stabilising the water table. He measured the results and told his neighbours. Not only did the trees keep the groundwater and the salt in check, but also owls and hawks started roosting in his trees. And began eating the rats in the fields decreasing the need for rodenticide.

His next-door neighbour started planting trees. And his next door neighbour...and so it went right on down the valley. As we spoke, sitting on his deck drinking tea I looked down the valley past his 20 metre trees, to the neighbours 15 metre trees to his neighbours 10 metre trees...

The message had got out, one chat over a fence at a time. And the water table with its salt stayed where it was.

I thought at the time, technology and agriculture are natural partners.

Farmers though late in adoption of ICT, understand it more holistically than many other industries.

They take a longer-term view. And even in a conservative industry, once the move is made and benefit demonstrated it is permanent.

Applying technology intelligently to managing a farm and its animals or crops is powerful.

Sensors on everything. Soil testing. Spatial mapping via GPS. Weather. Farm management system. Water. Soil. Planting. Harvesting.

Later, I spoke to a group in the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, and asked them why they were not using this same precision management approach with their "crop" – the thousands of farmers across the state.

"You wouldn't think much of a grower who tossed a handful of seeds over his shoulder and expected to come back in a year's time to harvest the crop...yet this is precisely the way you treat your crop...Queensland's farmers."

You can imagine how that went down. Governments and corporates are only now starting to wake up to the wider implications of engaging with their customers.

But it got me thinking. Why do we take such a piecemeal, hit and miss approach to promoting innovation, new concepts and ideas across all our industries.

We have the technology. We could just as easily manage knowledge sharing for a region, sector or state in the way a modern farmer manages the farm.

There is a big difference between an information economy – which we live in and a knowledge economy, which we could be living in. The gap is the intelligent matchmaking between demand and supply that informs, educates and encourages us into action.

I need "something", but I need more than just information about the "something". I need access to the collective knowledge and change agents – the people, things, networks, technologies that will help me move into action...with appropriate mentorship and support.

We are social creatures. People want to engage with people. In all our research, 95% of business owners want some form of mentoring, partnership, support and networking...the opportunity to speak with somebody and engage.

So automation of services has to be matched with access to people.

We are beginning to see signs of this happening intelligently, but not in government.

Xero is an accounting solution that partners (through APIs) with other software solutions to collectively cover many aspects of a small business's day to day operations.

Many accountants are now taking advantage of that business overview to directly engage with and support all their clients through the Xero cloud based system, effectively becoming an external but integral part of each organisation's management team.

So the technology (Xero + selected software solutions) is matched to each customers needs and then supported by expert advice (accountant), which is exactly what people want. And advice comes to them, when they need it.

People + technology + network. Organised around customer needs...and lubricated by shared value.

Take that thought and extrapolate across local business and not-for-profit networks, sectors, regions, states and beyond. Now, that would be a real knowledge economy.

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Wednesday, 21 March 2018