IDG’s AGENDA15: The dynamics of digital transformation

The conference highlighted new ways to drive innovation and gain competitive advantage

digital economy
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When asked what I do for a living, I often describe myself as “an information infrastructure guy” — a technology research analyst who focuses on systems/storage/networks/operating environments and systems software. But in reality I cover far more than just infrastructure. I explore how cloud environments are built and managed, I dabble in big data analytics, and occasionally I explore DevOps and mobile computing initiatives. But one area I have avoided has been the relationship between information systems and social engagement. That is, until I was invited to IDG’s AGENDA15 conference last week just down the road from me at Amelia Island, Fla.

AGENDA15 was billed as a conference that focused on driving business through “digital transformation.” Digital transformation seeks to more closely link enterprises with customers and business partners through the use of technology. Or, as Altimeter Group puts it, digital transformation is “the realignment of, or new investment in, technology and business models to more effectively engage digital customers at every touchpoint in the customer experience lifecycle.” So, in short, digital transformation involves engaging customers using new models supported by various digital technologies.

I know a fair amount about digital technologies — but precious little about social computing initiatives and customer engagement models — so I couldn’t resist. I hopped in the car, put the top down and headed to Amelia Island…

The conference

AGENDA15 was sponsored by IDG and produced by CIO, Computerworld and the CIO Executive Council. IDG had originally expected about 300 attendees, but close to 400 executives showed up, from both the C-class executive/business unit side of the enterprise and the information systems side of the organization. The format was keynote lectures, followed by workgroup lab activities, followed by social engagements.

Day one was a half-day session that consisted of background information to acquaint the audience with digital transformation definitions, trends and technologies. The “Increasing Your Company’s Digital IQ” (presented by Cisco) discussed terms, definitions, knowledge and skills needed to implement a digital transformation strategy. Red Hat then described the challenges that enterprises face today as they undertake digital transformational changes. And Dell discussed some of the cultural changes that need to take place within an enterprise in order to launch successful digital transformation initiatives.

Day two was a full-day session, kicked off with a keynote by R “Ray” Wang. Wang’s speech on “Disrupting Digital Business: A Game Plan for Transformation” provided further definition of what digital transformation means — as well as several customer mini-case studies that described how various organizations were improving customer “touch” through the clever use of technologies combined with creative new engagement models. Wang described how:

  • Uber, the Internet-driven taxi service, uses social, mobile, cloud, big data and the Internet of Things (sensor technologies) to deliver services to customers.
  • In the airline industry where the key metric is revenue per passenger mile, the new Boeing Dreamliner has been aligned to maximize revenue per passenger mile using a variety of customer touch technologies and related software.
  • FedEx was constantly bombarded by customer calls asking details about shipments. Rather than force customers to queue up in phone lines in order to speak with customer service to track a package, FedEx put in place a customer-facing electronic tracking and services environment that has delighted its customer base — and greatly lowered its customer service call volume.
  • Tesla, the car manufacturer, is changing the auto industry with a focus on customer touch, "eco" luxury and a direct-to-consumer business model.

But Wang really captured my attention when he talked about Amazon’s business model. He showed how Amazon’s model appeals to customers who need goods but don’t want to go to specialty brick-and-mortar stores to get them; who want streaming services (such as Prime Video); who want more media content (such as access to The Washington Post); and more. Wang claims that the relationship between Amazon and its customers is now based on trust (that I, as a consumer, trust the Amazon brand), and identity (Amazon knows who I am and what I want). Further, Wang explained how Amazon makes use of advanced information technologies like cloud computing and big data in order to reach its customers. I happen to be a big user of Amazon services — and now I know how Amazon has been able to find and keep me as a loyal customer all of these years. In other words, Wang’s description of how Amazon has digitally transformed itself — and how Amazon is strongly focused on customer touch — epitomized to me the meaning of digital transformation.

Wang’s presentation was followed by VMware discussing how business leaders are making the move to transform their enterprises to digital touch businesses. This presentation was followed by Meredith Whalen of IDC, who outlined the stages of digital maturity on the path to digital transformation. (IDC has a framework for measuring digital transformation progress). And these speeches were followed by customer “workshops” (labs) that enabled attendees to interact with one another and  discuss initiatives such as driving customer engagement, empowering the digital workplace, driving business efficiency and modernizing product development.

Day three featured a keynote by Dr. George Westerman of the MIT Sloan Center for Digital Business, who presented his research of 400 companies and their digital readiness. Westerman described a concept he calls “digital mastery” and talked about how digital transformation also involves digital vision, engagement, governance and IT business partnership. Like Wang's, Westerman’s presentation was full of mini-case studies, the most fascinating being about Nike. Nike has completely transformed itself from a shoe company to a manufacturer of custom (build-to-order) goods; it has become a master of social media, it understands digital product design — and the company operates as one cohesive unit, not in silos.

The remainder of the third morning focused on skills and people issues related to digital transformational change. The afternoon had more of a technology slant, with VMware talking about the relationship of cloud technology to digital transformation, Delphix talking about how big data supports digital transformation and Red Hat calling for IT transformation to support digital transformational initiatives. Break-out labs discussed crafting a strategic digital vision, governance of the digital future, and innovation.

The vendors

Several vendors were present at this event — including CA Technologies, Hewlett-Packard, Nimble Storage, BMC and Dell. I took some time to look closely at the Nimble Storage offerings — very low-cost, high-input/output per second (IOPS) storage devices that cost 10 times less than competing arrays.  BMC showed me an interesting collaboration tool that the company has just released. And I was also impressed by Dell’s presence at this conference. Dell claims to have been involved in digital transformation since 2006, when it built its made-to-order systems driven by its customers. This was very innovative thinking at that time. And now Dell offers a range of digital transformation services to assist customers with new business models that drive customer engagement that enhance operating efficiency and productivity, and that embed analytics, social, mobile and cloud solutions into cohesive digital transformation environments.

The attendees

I had the opportunity to talk with an insurance executive at breakfast on the final day about his company’s move toward digital transformation. He said his company was old school — driven by insurance representatives who had personal relationships with their customers. The company had a 9-5, Monday-through-Friday mentality — meaning that reps did their work during regular business hours — and IT services were also supplied during those hours (and not on weekends). This company is in the process of a major transformation, making services available to reps and their customers on a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week basis. It's writing new mobile applications, dealing with security and governance issues — and addressing cultural upheaval (older reps don’t want to use new systems, while new hires do). This discussion illustrated why IDC built its digital maturity model — it helps companies like this insurance company understand where they are on the digital transformation continuum — and plot their future moves.

I also talked with a CEO of a film company, who shared some of his insights on the conference. The key message he was taking home was to focus on the experience that his company would deliver to his clients — and on their personas. He intends to “match the experience to the client’s personal needs.”

Summary observations

I would be remiss to not mention that both Wang and Westerman have written books regarding their respective digital transformation journeys. Wang’s book is Disrupting Digital Business: Create an Authentic Experience in the Peer-to-Peer Economy and Westerman’s is Leading Digital: Turning Technology into Business Transformation

As for me, I’m glad I skipped over to Florida for a few days to attend this conference. I gained some new insights into the “customer touch” aspect business — and I now have a better understanding of how the information infrastructure elements that I cover can support digital transformational initiatives.

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