Perhaps you have noticed that my Twitter handle is @theebizwizard. You may have even noticed that my Skype handle is as well. It occurred to me that I’ve never told the story about that handle. I’d say it’s about time.
Ebusiness, as we gray-haired geezers are happy to relate, is a hype term from the dot.com crazy period of the late 1990s. The e prefix stands for electronic, as in e-mail. Well, if we can electronic-ify our mail into email, and we can electronic-ify our commerce into ecommerce, let’s take the next step and do the same thing with our entire business!
The core idea made perfect sense. Even as long ago as the 20th century, many businesses became increasingly dependent on their IT, and in some cases, we could even say that their business was IT. Take banking, for example. Money was no longer cash in a drawer, it was bits on a wire. Everything a bank does touches its technology.
But then two things happened to this essentially good idea. First, the pundits and vendors took the term and hype-ified it, essentially turning ebusiness into dot.com insanity, the enterprise version. Ebusiness rode the wave up to the top and predictably crashed along with the rest of the dot.com nonsense.
The second thing that happened to ebusiness, however, is more important. We finally realized that even ebusinesses aren’t made up entirely of technology. In reality, businesses are made up of people, just as they have been since the dawn of commerce back in the stone ages. Technology only gives us tools – increasingly powerful tools, but tools nevertheless.
What about Wizard?
There’s more to the theebizwizard story, however – the word wizard. This story begins in 1996, when my first wife and I were thinking about buying a mansion in Pittsburgh and turning it into a bed and breakfast. We never ended up buying the mansion, but I did buy the domain name rhodes.com, as a fellow named Rhodes originally owned the mansion.
It may be hard to believe now, but in those days it was bad form to own domain names you weren’t using, so I turned rhodes.com into my personal web site. For my email address I concocted [email protected] – to indicate I could have selected any email address, not to indicate any kind of magical ability on my part.
But to my surprise, in 2006 someone agreed to my price — $50,000. For a domain name! It seemed the dot.com craziness hadn’t entirely gone away after all. (The buyer put up a tourist site promoting Rhodes, Greece, until they went out of business. To this day www.rhodes.com is still on the market.)
So, to make a long story, well, even longer, when it came time to create a Twitter handle, I put together ebusiness and wizard – not to indicate I was a wizard at ebusiness (although thank you for thinking that!) but rather as a reminder of the two sides of hype. Yes, ebusiness as a term came and went, but the fact I was able to sell a domain name for more than I made in two years as a high school teacher shows the true power of hype if you know how to use it (or if you just get lucky).
Now It’s Digital
In the 2000s, I successfully rode the SOA hype term up and then down. Today I’m doing the same thing with digital transformation. I’m the first to admit this new term – especially the word digital – has its flaws, but it represents a set of very powerful and important ideas nevertheless.
In fact, we’ve come full circle with this story, as digital business more or less means the same thing as ebusiness. Admittedly, today digital technologies include mobile and social media, where ebusiness focused primarily on the web, so the technology story today is noisier and more confusing. But the fundamental principles still remain: in particular, the fact that digital is about people.
Today, the fundamental driving force behind digital transformation is the shifting preferences and behaviors of users – either consumers or employees, who after all, are also consumers. Consumers demand multiple technology touchpoints, and it is for that reason (and only that reason) that digital is about technology at all.
Nevertheless, people are missing this fundamental point, just as they did with ebusiness back in the day. It seems that every day I spot yet another digital consultant or digital analyst hanging out their shingle, promising to help companies with their digital strategies. And what do those strategies consist of? Mobile strategies. Twitter strategies. Even web strategies. The list goes on and on. In other words, technology strategies.
What about customer strategies? Not sexy enough. Businesses have needed customers since the dawn of time, after all. What’s new or exciting about that? Today, people are confused about mobile and social media and don’t even get me started about the Internet of Things. Those are the hot topics! And hot topics are where the money is!
Well, yes and no. Yes, there’s money in hype – that’s the lesson [email protected] taught me, after all. But never forget that people are – and will always be – at the center of business. Even ebusiness, or now, digital business.
Avoid Shiny Things
The reason it’s so easy to miss this fundamental principle is due to what I like to call the shiny things problem. People like shiny things, after all. Why? Because they’re shiny. The shinier the better. And if something is really shiny, you’ll forget all about what problem you’re trying to solve.
Techies frequently fall for shiny things. It seems that every new programming language or open source product is the next shiny thing. Ooh, Haskell! We gotta program in Haskell! Docker! We gotta use Docker! Etc. Etc. Believe it or not, SOA was a shiny thing in its day. I spent half a day in my SOA class trying to convince a roomful of architects that if something ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Don’t do SOA because it’s shiny!
Now digital transformation is the next shiny thing. People want it because, well, because it’s shiny! My advice: don’t fall for the shininess trap. Sometimes you do really need shiny things, and then by all means, go for it. But start with the problem you’re trying to solve. In the case of digital transformation, that starting point always centers on the customer, not the technology.