March 17, 2020

Market Analysis

A Not-So-Digital World After All

This article was originally published on

Have we all been buying our own BS?

Up until very recently, if you had read any industry publications, the business section of mainstream news or, heck, even my writing, you would have probably come away confident that we now lived in a world that was digitally-powered through-and-through.

Legendary investor Marc Andreesen perhaps summed it up best in 2011 with a simple statement: Software is Eating the World.

And we all bought it.

Those of us in the tech community — whether building the software (and hardware) that powers today’s technology machinery or running the IT organizations within enterprises that use it — have come to believe that we are the center of the world.

The outbreak of SARS-CoV-2, more commonly referred to as COVID-19, however, has exposed the fallacy of our thinking.

Perhaps our world is not so digital, after all.

COVID-19 Exposes Some Realities

There have been some nasty rumors and misinformation flying around, so let me dispel some of them right now: You cannot contract COVID-19 via email, Slack, or a Zoom meeting.

In all seriousness, this pandemic represents a very significant risk, which, as is now clear, has extraordinary health and economic ramifications for all of us — but the risk is all about physicality. (If you’re still skeptical of this, I wrote a letter to my family, which I later published on Medium, sharing my research and analysis of the COVID-19 risk that led my wife and me to self-isolate a week ago.)

The pandemic is bringing the world to its knees — and it’s doing so without impacting the digital world in almost any way. In so doing, it has exposed a few realities that we in the tech community may forget on a day-to-day basis.

Physical Touchpoints are Abundant and Essential

As it became clear that we would have to take significant steps to combat the spread of COVID-19 — and the implications of those steps became apparent — I was somewhat taken aback.

I consider myself to be intelligent and rational. Still, being a believer in the power of digital technologies, it was almost shocking to get such a visceral reminder of just how physical our world remains. As more and more physical touchpoints were removed, the impact on nearly every level of life was astounding.

No matter how digital we may think our world is, it remains the physical points of connection that are most important — and they’re everywhere.

We’re More Interconnected — In Every Way — Than Ever Before

Years ago, I remember watching the movie Contagion (boy, does it feel prescient now!) and thinking how small our world had become and how much higher the risk, as a result.

Thankfully, things are not moving quite as fast as they do in these sorts of movies. But on the other hand, the more slow-moving reality is making it abundantly clear just how connected we are as one world.

If this pandemic has taught us anything, it is that there is really no way to “shut down borders” — at least in the way that used to mean. There is just too much movement, happening far too quickly, for that to be a relevant mitigation strategy — no matter the issue.

Even more importantly, however, this situation has demonstrated that we are more interconnected than ever before — at every level. There has been no way to stop the virus nor the economic impact from spreading across geographies and industries.

Lessons for Digital Era Leaders

While I suspect we will be doing after-action reviews of the COVID-19 incident for years, there are already several lessons that modern enterprise leaders can take from this situation, even as it continues to unfold.

Systems Thinking is Essential

One of the most significant challenges that many people have had with understanding the impact of COVID-19 and the need for so-called social distancing is the same challenge that many enterprises have struggled with when it comes to executing change and creating adaptability: the failure to see how the entire system is interconnected.

(Side note: check out this video where Max & Mel Brooks explain social distancing perfectly!)

This capability is called Systems Thinking and it’s something that remains under-developed in most enterprises.

As we’re seeing during this crisis, when you fail to apply Systems Thinking, you miss many of the most important implications and ramifications — at least until it’s too late to do much about them.

As the dust begins to settle over the next weeks and months, this is a lesson you should take to heart. Embrace the philosophies of Systems Thinking and use them to take a fresh look at everything you do, paying particular attention to the points at which the systems cross between the digital and physical worlds.

Data Drives Everything

While data criticality has been a talking point for some time, many organizations have been slow to build the core capabilities necessary to truly harness and leverage it in their organizations.

As we’ve already seen play out with great consequence during this pandemic, those who have the best data, who can access it most readily, and who take decisive action based upon it, win.

It is those governments and organizations that had the best ability to test for the disease, to accurately collect and share transmission data, or to properly forecast supply and demand that were best able to serve their citizens or customers.

Despite the physicality of the situation, it is those with the greatest data capabilities that have been best able to cope with it.

As an enterprise leader, this should be a wake-up call. You need to be investing in both your data infrastructure and in building a data-centric culture — now. The stakes will only continue to get higher. Building these capabilities will include taking a fresh look at data platforms and pipelines, and exploring emerging philosophies such as DataOps.

The Intellyx Take: It All Comes Down to the Human Experience

Perhaps the biggest lesson coming out of our shared experience with COVID-19 is that it is the connection points between the digital and physical worlds that matter the most.

The various technologies that now consume vast chunks of our life have become essential components of our everyday existence.

For some of us, they’ve allowed us to continue working without almost any impact. For others, they have become a vital lifeline to the outside world and what is happening in it. But whichever the case, they remain a separate and detached space that cannot replace our real world.

This fact, and the prospect of removing physical interaction, has left people running scared.

As humans, we are social beings. We need and crave real-world engagement. We want to connect with people, communities, and even brands IRL (“in real life” for you non-millennials). As a society, we are learning that a purely digital experience is not sufficient.

Which leads us to perhaps the most critical lesson for enterprise leaders as you look to apply technology in your organizations: it all comes down to the human experience.

In the end, it will always be your ability — as an organization, as a leader, and as an individual — to create, foster, and sustain real relationships and authentic human experiences that will drive your success, value, and impact in the world.

Technology, of course, can be a great enabler of those relationships and can help create amazing human experiences for your customers and employees. But to do so, you will need to remember that your customers and employees do most of their living in the real, physical world.

If you’re not examining the connections between the physical and digital worlds from your customer’s and employee’s perspective, you’re missing the boat.

Copyright © Intellyx LLC. Intellyx publishes the Agile Digital Transformation Roadmap poster, advises companies on their digital transformation initiatives, and helps vendors communicate their agility stories. As of the time of writing, none of the organizations mentioned in this article are Intellyx customers. Image credit: Gerd Altmann.


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