The year is 1968, and Spencer Ferguson Silver III, a chemist working for the American multinational 3M, was hard at work seeking to formulate a strong bonding adhesive for use during aircraft construction. However, notwithstanding Silver’s best attempts, the chemical compound in the beaker in front of him was a ‘low tack’ adhesive that was markedly weak. The adhesive was only capable of weakly binding two flimsy objects temporarily together, offering little in terms of bonding resistance if one were to try and separate these fused objects later – hardly the right material for use on aircraft. However, Silver noted, the adhesive compound retained its weak binding capability long after, and could be used repeatedly, with little perceptible loss of adhesion.
Silver waited for four years before patenting the adhesive (chemically known as ‘acrylate copolymer microspheres’). In a 2010 interview with the Financial Times, he admitted how, “I felt my adhesive was so obviously unique that I began to give seminars throughout 3M in the hope I would spark an idea among its product developers.”
Fortunately, 3M had a policy of cross-company knowledge sharing which Silver exploited by delivering lectures about this ‘(wonderful) solution in search of a problem.’ The lectures were so frequent and passionate that Silver was popularly referred to as ‘Mr. Persistent.”
In 1974, Arthur Fry, another 3M employee, though from the company’s Tape Division Lab, attended one such in-house seminar, in which Silver, yet again, extolled the weak but persistent adhesive properties of his compound. In a flash of inspiration, Fry thought of using the compound to create paper bookmarks that could be fastened and removed without any damage to a book.
By 1977, Fry started marketing the adhesive notes as ‘Post ‘n Peel’ within just four U.S. cities; it was a relative commercial flop. Three years later, they were rebranded as ‘Post-it’ notes and soon became a runaway success across the whole of America. Today they are a ubiquitous office product, the world over.
The COVID-19 pandemic has induced a marked and necessary drive towards digital transformation. Such transformation is promoted as necessary to address the profound changes in consumer behaviour, the two most marked being a significant and sudden increase in online shopping and the relatively faster adoption of digital services.
‘Digital transformation’ is the term most used to denote ‘the integration of digital technology into all areas of a business, fundamentally changing how a business operates and delivers value to customers.’ In a world that is increasingly, and rapidly, becoming more digital, business transformation helps organisations in the need to continually assess processes, operations and even culture to deliver higher value and expected quality to clients.
Although this concept was promulgated as far back as the end of the 1970s, it has gained widespread popularity during and after the recent COVID-19 pandemic. A late-2020 McKinsey report underscored how the pandemic ‘pushed companies over the technology tipping-point and transformed business forever.’ In fact, this global epidemic ‘speeded the adoption of digital technologies by several years’ adding that business organisations are ‘today three times more likely to claim that at least 80% of their consumer interactions are digital compared to pre-pandemic era.’
In hindsight we can claim that the pandemic in general, and the resultant lock-down, induced an unexpected survival scenario (i.e. ‘do-or-die’). Overall, the sudden drive towards digital transformation has not only had an operational impact upon most business organisations, but it has also wrought a profound change in consumer behaviour, as evidenced by a significant increase in the adoption of digital services.
Technology Before Business
And yet, a quick assessment of who is promoting today’s digital transformation will indicate that it is somewhat viewed less of a critical requirement on the corporate agenda, as much as an opportunity to promote technology solutions. The temptation, it seems, is to view digital transformation as a technological solution seeking to address various corporate issues.
Let us temporarily take a step back and consider who is essentially making the clarion call for digital transformation. Judging by some recent online and printed articles on this subject-matter, it appears that the majority represent the opinion of technologists, many drafted to promote specific solutions that somehow could potentially address digital digitalisation requirements. Unsurprisingly, most of these articles reflect a technology-centric perspective of how digital transformation can be attained, rather than the business-centric viewpoint on what needs to be done prior to applying technology.
Much like Spencer Silver in the 1970s, solution-providers and technologists have been prominent players promoting the need for technology towards digital transformation. As an analogy, they are demonstrating the amazing ‘adhesive,’ with little thought of tangible application, and inviting business organisations to apply their ‘wonderful new tools’ wherever may make business sense. A carte blanche of functionality and purpose, provided the business organisation possesses the tool.
Such a situation is somewhat akin to putting the proverbial cart before the horse; in this case, presenting a technology solution without understanding the issue or the need.
Should technologists serve as the digital transformation evangelists, promoting information technology solutions as the mythical panacea to every known business requirement?
Given that digital transformation initiatives depend significantly upon technology solutions, it is inevitable and tempting to seek the support of information technology specialists when embarking on such projects. Solution providers, generally, enjoy a holistic understanding of the ever-changing technology landscape and are well-capable of aligning digital solutions with business requirements.
However, it is critical to ensure that digital transformation requires a much more profound strategy than just the implementation of technology. In the wise words of the popular mantra, technology is the tool and hardly ever the solution.
To appreciate why technologists do not appropriate evangelists make, one needs to assess the four distinct aspects that digital transformation seeks to attain:
- Business model change through evolution or innovation.
- Business process change or improvements.
- Corporate culture in shared values, beliefs, and norms.
- Domain considerations involving use of the Cloud.
When considering the four areas, it should be quite evident that any digital transformation initiative should have its origins from the within (i.e. internally), rather than the without (i.e. externally).
The more-appropriate evangelists should preferably emerge from within the corporate management team, with a visionary viewpoint, a long-term strategy and sound corporate focus. It is only then that one can look towards established and emerging technology to implement the organisational goals and objectives through digital transformation.
In this way, technology is rendered as the powerful, digital, ‘horse’ that pulls along the ‘cart’ of improved operations, higher productivity, and marketplace competitiveness. All ably supported by the technologists and their amazing and powerful digital solutions.
It is only in this way that digital transformation enjoys the essential ‘adhesive’ that binds business and technology. Now where did I stick that canary-yellow Post-it on which I hurriedly scribbled an apt conclusion?
Hadrian J Sammut is responsible for advisory and consultancy with the local firm of iMovo. He can be contacted on [email protected]