In a business world that I thought had been digital for a long time, why is everyone talking about Digital Transformation (capital D, capital T)? When I started working in computers back in the early ‘80s at Barclays Bank, it was fair to say that most big organisations already relied on computers to conduct their business. Since everything that passed through a CPU was either a 0 or a 1 (binary, for the layperson), surely business was digitised then? Perhaps (if you’re some hair-splitting nerd), but today’s definition of digital is a quantum leap forward.
There won’t be many reading this who don’t have a smartphone of some sort, and it’s that pocket incendiary (especially if you are a Samsung S7 owner) which is causing this revolution in how we transact our lives. And I don’t use the term revolution lightly. Revolutions are about overthrowing an existing hierarchy and replacing it with something more popular. Smartphones are just that: modern-day essentials—the natural portable extension of the Internet. We are permanently contactable, read our emails on the tube, book travel and manage our travel documents in the cafe, check bank balances at the park, and so on. All pretty much routine stuff today, but in reality, this is quite a revolution from pre-January 2007, when the very first iPhone was launched. This was LESS THAN TEN YEARS AGO.
For the past fifteen to twenty years, we’ve grown accustomed to using the Internet for shopping and for managing our daily lives, and business and government have taken advantage: after all, having the customer self-serve saves cost and time. It’s virtually impossible to grow your business without a serious Internet presence to the extent that there just aren’t that many organisations without online portals for sales and self-service now. Online presence is definitely a key factor for growth.
But like so many things in life, new and shiny becomes old and humdrum; having web access is the norm, and is therefore no longer a competitive advantage. Enter stage right the smartphone. Initially, business took advantage by extending websites with phone-friendly versions. Then came the app, and boy, do we love our apps; there are 13.5 billion paid downloads predicted this year. These extend the front-end systems of corporate processes and further enhance the ability to get the customer to do your admin for you, er, I mean, extend your capabilities out to the customer to improve your customers’ experiences and your cost effectiveness. Many take advantage of the geo-location capabilities of the smartphone, sometimes a little too intrusively IMHO, and now, a new generation of apps is coming through which makes use of the camera.
The camera has evolved in leaps and bounds since its first in-phone incarnation, and this is facilitating a new generation of applications. These apps create a secure link to the phone’s camera and rather than taking a picture, they extract information from whatever they’re looking at. This could be a formatted document, like a cheque; an unformatted document, such as a letter; or a legal form of ID, like a passport or driving licence. These apps aren’t taking photos; they are digitally reading what they are looking at and extracting that data for use in corporate systems. The initial applications are exciting enough in their own right (think customer onboarding capturing multiple IDs in a few minutes), but what does the future hold?
Robotic Process Automation (RPA is the TLA-Three Letter Acronym) is a new Big Thing, and I see an increasing use of this technology to reach office nirvana by way of automating much of the endless drudgery of paperwork. Having read the information from the smartphone, what do you do with it? There’s little point in expediting the document and data capture if all you do is create a backlog in your office—RPA can take that data and start to do clever things with it. For example, RPA can check that the ID you have captured is real. Suddenly, KYC (Know Your Customer—sorry, another TLA, but this is BIG in finance circles) can be comprehensively automated, and instead of a costly, slow and error-prone feature of opening any sort of financial services account, it becomes a simple and cheap process.
Add in that you can format a digital document contract on-the-fly with the data that you have digitally read and presented it on the customer’s device for them to digitally sign—bless the touch screen—and yes sir, we are now talking Digital Transformation. Previously, all of this would have required physical artefacts such as paper, pen, envelope, stamp, sorting machine, van, trolleys to transport, countless people — you get the picture. It’s now been handled entirely in the digital world. Quickly. Simply. Efficiently. Securely.
We are in an age of rapid innovation, with the time between the wild claims of the NBT (Next Big Thing) getting less and less all the time, in a kind of inverse Moore’s Law.
It’s likely that smartphone cameras being used for facial recognition will gain mass acceptance in the next year or so, and I predict that voice recognition (for uniquely identifying the speaker) will move from the province of high-end call centre systems to the smartphone, as well. How long before your passport, like your boarding pass, is actually on your smartphone?
So why should business leaders be interested in all this? Sure, this is exciting for customer-facing systems and helps companies keep up with competitors, protecting those customers you have already secured and attracted new ones because you’re much easier to do business with. But that’s not the only reason. Consider the potential for applying these technologies internally, such as onboarding new staff—why post IDs, P45s and various other forms around when they can be captured and verified digitally? There are so many clunky and often-pointless pieces of internal paper-based bureaucracy in our daily lives that could be removed or made easier by using these technologies if only we were brave and innovative enough to apply this technology internally.
Why are we still carrying ID cards when our smartphones could be used? Why are you filling out ANY paper forms when they could be digitised? Why are people surfing the Internet to do checks that could be handled by software robots? And hundreds of more rhetorical questions…
Think about the inane pieces of bureaucracy that drive you nuts every day. How much money does your organisation waste every day, month and year undertaking these tasks? Would you rather be doing something more interesting instead? Well, perhaps these things should be the targets for digitisation, automation and innovation. The possibilities for automating processes connected to sophisticated mobile devices are immense. This is Digital Transformation at its best, and those organisations that have the ability to devise new ways of eliminating the mundane through innovation will create their own internal revolution and journey onward to their post-revolutionary nirvana.
Originally published on LinkedIn.