The Digital Transformation: Magic or Havoc? – Part 2

In Part 1 of this post, I began a discussion of the current Digital Transformation, tracing its lineage as the latest of a series of upheavals dating back to the industrial revolution. I also outlined some of the far-reaching changes that AI, machine learning, and the Internet are already bringing about.

Part 2

As the leader of a company at the epicenter of this vortex of change, and someone with an abiding interest in fostering an ever-more compassionate and humane society, I think about the Digital Transformation and its implications every day. As with previous epoch-changing events, I see it as a double-edged sword. It creates both a crisis and humankind’s greatest opportunity to advance itself.

Technology Plus Time Equals Progress

When new technologies first appear, they are almost always less efficient than techniques and processes that have been refined over many years.  But as vividly demonstrated by Harvard’s Clayton Christensen, new platforms surpass old ones relatively quickly, to the point of rendering them useless. To take an example: I wear a Fitbit, and am appalled at how little information it provides. Still, I don’t doubt that in 20 years’ time, we’ll all wear health monitoring devices with capabilities that dwarf those of today. In this relatively near future, we’ll receive a call or alert from our doctor with advice and maybe a prescription too, even before we feel sick. Innovations on this scale will reduce healthcare costs much more than any reforms ever could.

In fact, companies such as Entlitic are already fusing machine learning with medicine, using insights from billions of clinical cases to deliver better diagnoses at a fraction of the current cost.   Similarly, institutions like the Holberton School and 42, both of which train coders, have dispensed with traditional teachers and courses in favor of a project-centric approach focused on coaching, collaborative peer learning, and gamification. These are prime examples of today’s pioneering techniques that will become tomorrow’s norms.

Disrupt or Be Disrupted

Small businesses, serving local and individual needs, will find ways to adapt to new digital realities. Some will change hands, but many will soldier on: for the foreseeable future, society will continue to need services like hairdressers, neighborhood restaurants and bars, plumbers, and similar tradespeople.

The Digital Transformation will pose the greatest challenge to large businesses and government agencies, whose functions will be essentially redefined. Regrettably, such organizations have baked-in resistance to change, in the form of rigid bureaucracies and senior managers that have built and consolidated power over many years. Rather than break new ground and lead the charge, these individuals and structures typically act to impede, stonewall, and generally delay change—in the hope of surviving disruption with their positions and status intact. Sadly, in pursuing an obstructive course, they serve themselves rather than their organizations. Meanwhile, upstart businesses, regions, and countries—energized and inspired to transcend the status quo—enter the arena and ascend. In the words of Bob Dylan, “He not busy being born is busy dying.” The bottom line: the longer an established enterprise or society takes to challenge itself, the less chance it will remain a leader.

IT Is Not Immune

The digital economy requires massive amounts of computing capacity and data storage—on a scale far beyond the capabilities of traditional IT architectures. These will be replaced by cloud models as surely as mega-power plants superseded thousands of local, disconnected generators during the first part of the 20th century.

Surveying the already immense worldwide computational grid, the question arises: Where among these millions of undifferentiated machines does real human and economic value reside?

It’s in the software. As Mark Andreesen says, “Software is eating the world.” The game-changing digital services we’ve come to rely on are almost entirely composed of software. Think Priceline and Expedia: they ate the travel agents. Uber is consuming taxis. AirBnB is munching on hotels.

And Scality is devouring legacy storage platforms. Our software powers the petabyte-scale data storage that makes the digital world go round. We’re proud to be one of the first Digital Age storage vendors—serving hundreds of millions and soon to be billions of users, as the digital revolution touches more and more economic processes.

Change can be as scary to incumbent IT as to any other entrenched institution. But technological change is inevitable. The more quickly an enterprise embraces forward-looking IT models, the better its chance to thrive in the new era.

Falling Back On Fear

Thousands of pages have been written about change management, but the essence can be expressed in two words: Explain first. That is, prepare the ground—and the populace—for the changes to come.

The exact opposite seems to be happening today. In the face of social and cultural upheavals, western countries are seeing the rise of populist politicians spreading fear-based messages about change: Globalization is eroding our national rights. Jobs are migrating elsewhere. Too many foreigners are migrating here. And so on.

Add the Digital Transformation to the mix, and you hear some truly apocalyptic forebodings: “Jobs will disappear altogether.” “AI may turn against humans.”  “People will stop communicating.”  “The planet won’t be able to feed everyone.”  “Big brother will squelch our freedoms.”  “Production will be wholly outsourced to low-cost countries.”  “There will be no place in life for spontaneity and surprise anymore.”

To me, these are all projections of fear and misunderstanding. A more realistic view is that the digital world will in fact be a much better place. It will free many more people to ascend the Maslow pyramid, fulfilling themselves far beyond basic physiological and safety needs. In a digitally transformed world, the best-compensated jobs will involve creativity and caring for others—in the form of “service à la personne” or local service. Repetitive, routine tasks will be the lowest-paid form of labor, reducing unskilled workers to little more than slaves. To take an example from education: simply repeating the same lesson plan year after year will become just about useless, while helping each student overcome specific difficulties will be of near infinite worth.

Other hallmarks of the approaching digital world: Jobs will be plentiful because creativity and care are of limitless value. Machine learning-driven AI will become an extension of ourselves, akin to the way in which the automobile augments our ability to move from place to place. Healthcare costs will plummet because most illnesses will be caught much earlier. The planet will deliver as much food as required, as we leverage novel ways to produce proteins. All human activities will be recorded, with each person owning their individual cryptographic key. Production will be partially re-localized, empowered by 3D printing and the potential to greatly reduce transport costs. And local bookstores will thrive, thanks to their ability to surprise us, delight us, and nurture our creativity through spontaneous exploration.

The Outcomes are Ours to Create

The Digital Transformation is a tremendous opportunity, for individuals, for the country, and for mankind…. but it rests upon us, the people at the forefront of this transformation, to guide everyone forward on the journey. Short of this, fear will continue to drive those who feel left out, and they will keep stirring up resistance, unrest, violence, and even terror against this world which seems to have no place for them. It is our responsibility to offer them a path, rather than wait and watch as violence and bedlam continue to erupt from those who feel ignored and excluded.

Join the Dialogue

I hope this is just the beginning of a lively and productive exchange of views on this vital topic.  We’re all in this together. It will take a joint determined effort to drive the Digital Transformation forward on a steady and positive course. Your thoughts, questions, and ideas matter greatly, and I invite you to share them below.

In the coming months, we’ll expand the conversation further with contributions from notable leaders and thinkers in technology, marketing, academia, and beyond.

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