What kind of digital transformation is happening within your organization? Mapping current digital technologies

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Automation, AI, Big Data, the ‘Internet-of-Things’ and Augmented Reality… are you one of the many who are ‘lost in translation’ when it comes to understanding the varying strands of digitalisation? Nowadays it is easy to get confused. Where previously the concept of ‘digitalisation’ was defined as the transfer of data into formats accessible to digital technologies, it now covers a wide variety of transformation processes where digital technologies are both developed, implemented or both! But don’t worry - this blog will help you understand and categorise the digital transformation taking place in your organisation today.

There are four main areas where digital transformation within organisations is typically focussed and they are outlined and explained below:

1.    Replacing human work

Technologies such as automation and robotics are designed to directly replace human labour. In many factories in the Western world this has already happened with most effort to date focused on the replacement of physical manual labour, but so-called white collar tasks are increasingly also performed by machines.

A further stage of digital transformation has been identified, sometimes termed Industry 4.0. It connects existing operational digital technologies to various IT systems, allowing the technologies to exchange information so that, for example, customer orders are linked to production and logistic processes without human intervention.

In the area of white collar work, technology in the form of RPA (robot process automation) is increasingly replacing routine-based human work. This is software that is programmed to undertake a series of routine-based operations, such as the paying of salaries, previously undertaken by administrative staff.

2.    Infrastructure transformation

A second group of digital technologies is related to infrastructure transformation, providing significantly enhanced potential for communications and the sharing of information. Technologies related to the ‘internet-of-things’ sit within this category. Internet-of-things refers to the digital connection of a whole host of products, appliances, wearables, smartphones etc. that each incorporate technology that allows them to connect and exchange information. It allows, for example, the creation of a ‘smart home’ by making it possible for (for example) the fridge to communicate with your smartphone and let you know that you have run out of milk – or even, in a future scenario, to communicate directly with your supermarket and place an order to arrive just in time with other groceries it anticipates you will need. It takes little imagination to convert the ‘smart home’ concept to a ‘smart work’ scenario where for example component stores are automatically monitored and ordered.

Cloud computing is also related to infrastructure, and to the keeping of information ‘in the cloud’, i.e. on a server (or servers) that sit with an external provider. This makes it possible to access information wherever you are, regardless of which computer or mobile device is being used meaning huge datasets are available 24/7 to a dispersed workforce.

Similarly, a range of social media and digital workplace apps such as Teams, Slack, Trello, and many more are examples of digital tools that provide new infrastructure to facilitate new ways of communicating and exchanging information in the real and virtual workplace.

3.    The performing of work

Other areas of digitalisation-related technologies are those that perform work on demand. Here, we find technologies such as virtual assistants, i.e. software (or parts of software) that assist humans in their day to day work. Siri and Alexa are probably the most well-known virtual assistants and for many of us form part of our day to day home lives. Such technology is increasingly being applied to workplace scenarios performing (for example) secretarial tasks in meetings by taking notes, compiling to-do-lists and by recording and transcribing what humans say in meetings.

To assist workers in performing tasks there are also digital technologies that offer augmented reality enhancing our effectiveness at work via audio and visual information. For example, the use of a headset or mobile phone screen allows reality to be augmented with additional data in order to make better, quicker decisions by overlaying pertinent information.

A final aid to performing work sees organisations increasingly borrowing elements from the gaming-world in order to encourage workers to interact with data to meet targets. This trend, known as gamification, is growing in many industries today, affecting how people perform various tasks by, for example, creating competitive scenarios and deploying interactive graphics to replace tables of data.

4.    Decision making

A further area of digitalisation activity relates to decision making. The possibilities promised by big data (i.e. a large amount of digitally stored information) have been talked about for several years and businesses naturally find the concept appealing. For example, the ability to capture employee usage of software-systems (via tracking algorithms incorporated within the software) is something that a lot of organisations find of interest. However, its use raises several challenges related to a business’s ability to handle and store the data as well as questions around identifying the appropriate point at which action might be taken as a result of the data.

Another technology related to digitalisation and decision is the concept of digital twins. A digital twin involves the creation of a virtual copy of, for example, a production-line in order to gather information about the consequences about potential future changes. The digital twin is thus a copy of a live setting that only exists in a virtual reality as a simulated, digitally created, version of reality.

Finally - what about AI?

A concept not mentioned so far is AI, short for Artificial Intelligence. This refers to machines that display ‘intelligence’ in some way. What intelligence is, and how it may be identified is however heavily debated, and some argue that the definition of artificial intelligence is constantly being updated to become ever-more sophisticated. Technology exists today that may improve the way machines operate by evaluating their performance and adjusting the way they carry out operations. This is an example of machine learning, which itself is an example of AI.

Artificial intelligence is a digital technology that can be applied to each of the four areas discussed above.

In a world where journalists and commentators make sweeping statements about the future and digital technology, many people are confused by new concepts and phrases that enter the mainstream without being fully explained. I hope this article helps you to categorise and better understand the digitalisation initiatives going on in your place of work!