The Digital Transformation: Magic or Havoc? – Part 1

Unless you’ve spent the past several years on a mountaintop or marooned on a desert isle, you’re no doubt aware of the “Digital Transformation” that is underway. Yet despite the almost nonstop buzz, most business and government leaders I encounter either underestimate the scope and personal impact of this momentous change, or feel overwhelmed almost to the point of paralysis. To my mind, a focused examination can help us all come to grips with what looks to be the defining event of our age. Let’s start off by reviewing its background and context. Then in Part 2 we’ll explore alternate visions of the digital future.

Part 1:

Shifts Happen

However you feel about the Digital Transformation, it’s already in motion, and on its way to forever altering businesses and jobs as we’ve known them since the dawn of the postwar era. As radical as this sounds, it’s hardly unprecedented. The current transformation is actually just the fourth wave of the industrial revolution ushered in by steam-powered, mechanized production back in the 1850s. The second stage came at the end of that century, with the democratization of energy thanks to mass-scale electrical power grids. The third wave made landfall only recently, with the advent of the “knowledge-based” or service economy. Now the fourth tsunami is sweeping in, with Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robots replacing routine jobs en masse. Each tidal wave has washed away millions of businesses and jobs, while paradoxically catalyzing even larger numbers of new ones. At the macro level, these tectonic shifts have upended the world order, toppling venerated business and political dynasties and thrusting upstart economies and cadres into the limelight.

For most people, change at this level is risky and frightening. As instinctive a response as this may be, it is counter-adaptive: resisting change will not prevent it. There’s no stopping AI, machine learning, and the Internet from working their transformative power on just about everything. Futuristic products like self-guided drones, self-driving cars, and 3D printing will inevitably take their toll on routine job roles—supplanting office clerks, drivers, factory workers, and even teachers and doctors by the millions. The process may take 20 or 30 years to work its way through, but it’s already in progress. If you’re under 70 years old, you will personally feel its effects.

Some fresh harbingers of the digital revolution:

  • Just a year ago, John Chambers, Cisco’s charismatic chairman, warned that, “40% of companies will be dead in 10 years.”
  • The focus of 2016’s Davos Worldwide Economic Forum was “The Future of Jobs.”
  • Foxconn recently announced the replacement of 60,000 employees with robots.
  • A few months ago, GE, the world’s largest industrial conglomerate, publicized a major strategic reorientation toward digital business.

Which brings the conversation down to you, me, and each of us on a personal level. How do you feel about all this? As a leader in business or government, or as an employee and citizen, what is your stance toward the Digital Transformation? What steps are you taking to embrace technological change and propel your company and society forward? I invite you to contribute your comments, thoughts and suggestions below. I’m eager to learn what you think.

I’ll share my own professional and personal perspectives in Part 2—watch this space in the coming weeks.

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