Digital transformation needs more pioneers, not more IT

Paul Bessems
9 min readFeb 20, 2019

If you want to know where we’re going, it’s best to look at where we come from. You can see into the future better if you let go of your dominant logic, follow patterns and principles, and see from different perspectives. Based on current events, I share my radar to get a sharper picture on future-driven organizing. You can use this for better strategies, policies, and decisions. This time I look at the statement: Digital transformation needs more pioneers and not more IT.

True digital transformation is about solving societal problems with new organization models, and… ow yeah, IT can help with that. But IT should not drive strategies or policies. The real impact of new technologies sec is limited and potentially damaging if your organization doesn’t understand what digital transformation really is about and how you could use it strategically.

Technology, and the mass media attention prompt many organizations to jump in too fast for the wrong reasons. Last technology this phenomenon could be witnessed was blockchain. Organizations are wasting time and money (sometimes tax money), on tools that are not aligned with the goals and vision of the organization and the digital context they are in. Technology should never drive the design, development, and adoption of new business models. It should be the opposite: problems to be solved should drive the adoption of new technologies. Technology alone doesn’t make your ‘big data’ automatically ‘rich data’ for example. Too many organizations are rich on data but poor on knowledge.

As Peter Drucker wrote in 1999:

“The most important, and indeed the truly unique, contribution of management in the 20th century was the fifty-fold increase in the productivity of the manual worker in manufacturing. The most important contribution management needs to make in the 21st century is similarly to increase the productivity of knowledge work and knowledge workers. The most valuable assets of a 20th-century company was its production equipment. The most valuable asset of a 21st-century institution (whether business or non-business) will be its knowledge workers and their productivity.”

As the productivity growth in offices goes to zero, we know we are not succeeding in this mission.

Digital Assembly Line
But there is hope: just as the physical assembly line made the manual worker more productive in factories, the digital assembly line will make the information worker more productive in offices. To do so, we don’t need more IT but smarter IT. We don’t need more (big) data, but smarter (rich) data. It is not only about the amount of data, it is above all about the quality of data. The true value of data is in efficiency, aggregation, accessibility, sustainability, integrity, transparency, security, censorship- & tamper-proof, pragmatic, self-sovereign identity, and a shared reality and meaning. Concepts like Distributed Ledger Technologies (including blockchain) provide ‘rich data’. And ones the data is rich: server A can ask a question to server B receives an answer that is correct, and no human interaction is needed anymore.

“What the physical assembly line did in factories, will the digital assembly line do in offices”

Organization tech for a more sustainable prosperity
We need to address societal problems. We need pioneers that design and develop fundamentally new ways of organizing that can provide a large contribution to social challenges, such as the crumbling welfare state, aging population, growing inequality, fraud, tax evasion, propaganda, cybersecurity, and climate change. We need more pioneers such as Henry Ford and Frederick Taylor to improve our productivity. This time not in factories, but in offices with the help of a Digital Assembly Line. True digital transformation will improve productivity in offices and creates a surplus. This surplus can be used to make our welfare more sustainable.

“What do most effective leaders do: they know the past, perform in the present and organize the future, all at the same time”

What is a pioneer
True digital transformation needs pioneers. A pioneer is an entrepreneur who is one of the first to enter a certain era or area, and has to find a new way. Plus, a pioneer cannot use the experience of another person who has ever been there. Along the way there are no tools to be found, this must be considered before the pioneer starts the expedition. A pioneer has a vision, whereby an effective vision is a sustainable imagination that has the power to become a reality.

Characteristic of pioneering is the setbacks one experiences, the hardships one undergoes, the delayed desire, the success that one must deny oneself and the large effort that one has to make because all kinds of facilities are still missing. The work of a pioneer is often accompanied by many failures, but the pioneer learns from that. A pioneer does not have methods that have been proved in practice. A pioneer must have the courage and be prepared to make a journey nobody else has made. Courage is not the absence of fear, but the notion that something else is more important in your life than yourself. Or as the American writer Meg Cabot wrote:

“Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear. The brave may not live forever, but the cautious do not live at all. From now on you’ll be traveling the road between who you think you are and who you can be. The key is to allow yourself to make the journey.”

A pioneer knows that a lot of people are afraid, not knowing where society will go. But this vacuum gives energy and space for hope. It gives space for letting go of the old and a time for new thinking and doing. The work of a pioneer is very important, so others can build on it. A pioneer looks at a problem in such a way that the solution to the problem is evident for others.

In this dynamic and hectic time, pioneering has the character of admitting color: show who you are and what you stand for. A pioneer shows and experiences inspiration in the work performed and how it is done. A pioneer is able to give substance to developments that are necessary and important in the current world. A pioneer dares to let go of old securities in order to create space to look from a new perspective. In doing so, rely on abundance, in spite of those who regard scarcity as a fact. A pioneer dares to rely on imagination, in spite of those who feel captured by existing conditioning.

A pioneer is able to let go of comfortable ideas because these do not challenge the way of thinking. Being able to offer genuine value by serving the best to the next development stage in humanity is characteristic for a pioneer. The road to more maturity is cleared. A road more and more people are ready and longing for. A pioneer is deeply convinced that we humans are capable of much more than what we now deliver. A pioneer knows that not experiencing the results of his effort is no reason not to make the effort.

“Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act” (Rebecca Solnit)

Is it time for a new Enlightenment?
A question could be: will or prosperity and democracy ‘survive or die’ as a result of digital transformation? Will our society survive if tech companies can strengthen their power? Will democracy survive if the difference between fact and fiction is not important anymore? Will our prosperity sustain in a rapidly globalizing and digitizing society full of inequality, mistrust, and anger. Will we survive when we continue to use old centralized organization models to organize supply and demand of data or are decentralized forms better and why?

I believe it is time for a new form of Enlightenment with which we can separate ourselves, as human beings, from existing conditions, institutions, and management paradigms. For example, in the past, we have separated ourselves from dogmas of ‘the church’, the State and other self-evident things like the exclusion of women and minorities.

Now it is time that we separate ourselves from centralized organization paradigms and tools which are more and more of a burden to us than a blessing. I mean tools and technologies that we use, but that are not transparent, democratic or decentral. Tools we cannot control and for which there are no alternatives as many think. Tools that, step by step, without being aware of it (and perhaps not so intended), take away our human freedom and keep us more trapped. One of the best-known Enlighteners is Immanuel Kant, who offers the following insight:

“Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another”

His insight is still relevant. Immanuel Kant bases himself on the autonomous person, who will not be led by others. ‘Dare to think’ he says. With this, he responds to people who state: ‘I cannot help it because I was born this way’. According to Kant, this means that you do not even accept your own dignity. Many people cover themselves in advance, also with regard to using traditional management concepts like: ‘It is never my problem, but always the problem of the other person’. Or with new technologies like blockchain, they will say: ‘This is too complicated for me. Digital transformation is something for IT. For me, it is not important enough to spend thoughts, time or money on it’.

By saying this, people make themselves incapable of action and thus inferior, not compared to other people, but more and more often compared to the tools they use. Besides ‘the other person’, the circumstances are usually blamed. Never myself. But circumstances and tools cannot choose, only people can choose. You cannot blame the actual circumstances or tools that you cannot live in the world you want to live in. Only ten percent of your life depends on what happens, ninety on how you react on that. You cannot blame the rain that you have forgotten your umbrella.

People that are longing for change without changing themselves, or as I read it on a bus shelter:

“To hope for change without doing something yourself is as waiting for a boat at the train station”

Technology and free will
The right to individual self-preservation and development can only be exercised by people who also have access to their data and can decide on who can use it or not. We mean ‘data self-determination’ and ‘data self-sovereignty’. ‘Be a person’, says Kant and carry your responsibility. The situation that we as humans can think, be aware and relate ourselves to what affects us, makes us human and distinguishes us from other animal species and tools.

We will desperately need this feature with all technological developments that emerge and will affect us. Examples of digital transformation are known: ‘artificial intelligence’, ‘machine learning’, ‘analytics’, ‘robotics’ and ‘internet of things’. A democracy can only survive, if the decisions that we take as a person, are based on ‘rich data’ that people can also acquire and share in freedom and is not pre-sorted by a tool. ‘Rich data’ can separate facts and fiction and can be facilitated by Distributed Ledger Technologies and more specific blockchain. If you align blockchain technology with a fundamentally new way of organizing, new ways of dealing with the challenges that face us will emerge.

When we cannot make a choice in freedom, it undermines our constitution, our community, and our fundamental human rights. We are clearly at a crossroad in our existence. If we make the wrong decision now, it can have serious consequences for the future of our children. Anyway, true digital transformation and blockchain offers a way for people to ‘regain control’ of their data and the tools that they use to transfer data from supply to demand.

True digital transformation is not about ‘big data’, ‘internet of things’ or ‘artificial intelligence’ but about finding a new balance between decentral and central, between people and tools. Too many people don’t understand what digital transformation is or are in digital denial. Your job will not be taken by robots but by people who understand digital better.

So we need more pioneers and more time and attention for true digital transformation or as Gandalf would put it:

“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us”

Future-driven organizing for answers to (strategy)questions and dilemmas

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Paul Bessems

Strategic advisor, entrepreneur, international speaker. He helps organizations with a future-driven organizing, developing solutions and transformation programs