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It's time for IT teams to digitize like the startups do

William Heitman | Dec. 21, 2015
Many IT leaders are desperately seeking digitization as a way to transform their companies, but century-old, nontechnology improvements can produce results that can impact operations across all lines of business.

Despite its circular logic, the virtuous waste misperception provides an opportunity for knowledge workers to continue the status quo. Startups exploit this opportunity. 

Knowledge work today: automation without industrialization 

Imagine that you are a knowledge worker. After you digitally purchase your coffee on your way to work, you arrive at your office – the knowledge work factory. Take your place at your workstation. Now it’s time to slow down. You have manual work to do, although it will be performed on the latest office technology. A workflow system acts as a digital conveyor belt, delivering “work products” to your computer monitor. These might be orders, reports and requests for data analysis or similar items for you to process. 

If you were in a mechanical, industrialized factory, these items would arrive complete and in good order. Industrial engineers would have clearly defined your work tasks and the specs for your work products. Data would be kept in clean and orderly inventories. Standard instructions and procedures would be documented and easy to find. Your work load would be sequenced and scheduled for completion within documented standards and reasonable timelines. But that’s not how it works in the knowledge work factory. 

In practice, the workflow system is often circumvented. Urgent, garbled requests for your work products – a management report, for example – arrive unexpectedly via email, phone or text message. As you begin your task, there is no clean and orderly inventory of the data you need. You must manually gather much of the data for that requested management report. The data will not be compatible or complete. Manual cleaning and reconciliation is needed to make the data usable. This practice is so widespread it has acquired the name “data wrangling.” 

Next, there are no standard specs for the design of the management report. There are no rules for naming it when it is complete. You consult your coworkers for unwritten “tribal knowledge” and design the report as best you can. You create your own, informal naming system. There is no master inventory for finished reports, so you squirrel it away where you, and only you, are likely to find it. 

Across the Fortune 500, over 9 million knowledge workers – 35 percent of total employees – are having similar workdays in marketing, customer service, finance, sales, product management and even IT. Forty percent of their time is lost to the lack of industrialization. We see this in company after company. 

Stop outsourcing industrialization and start digitizing 

When business executives and their IT teams struggle unsuccessfully to find digitization opportunities, they are effectively outsourcing this job to digital startups. Compared to startups, however, existing businesses hold all the advantages, both strategic and operational. They possess the lion’s share of opportunities and resources needed to win. Overcoming existing organizational misperceptions represents their greatest challenge. 


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