Thoughts for business executives on future-proofing a business
As chief information officer at Johnson Financial Group, I seek to ensure our technology never gets in the way of the business moving forward. I call this “future-proofing” a business — though that may not mean quite what you’d expect, because in my experience at least half of future-proofing is about attitude, not about hardware and software.
Learn and fail fast
The future comes at you fast. Not only are traditional competitors innovating constantly, but so are nontraditional competitors. In banking, for example, that means big-box stores adding mini bank branches, or tech firms offering new forms of payments. Like you, we need to be able to adapt quickly to changing needs. And adapting quickly means making informed decisions faster. In my experience, the best way to speed up decision-making is to launch what I call “low-fidelity prototypes” to prove out a concept. If it shows promise, you move into more refined solutions.
If it fails, you’ve failed faster — which lets you move onto the next idea. Either way, you’re focusing on learning, first and foremost. By putting relatively low-cost experiments in motion, you create feedback loops that let you make incremental adjustments as you learn more.
Here’s an example from our own recent experience. As we’ve sought to embrace a hybrid work environment, a priority is leveling the playing field when some meeting participants are together in a conference room and others are joining remotely. To explore options, we started with an extremely “lo-fi” test of everyone at the conference table having a laptop open, so the remote people could see them. This felt like a regular Zoom call for the remote people. But for the people in the room, it was very awkward — not surprisingly — with respect to in-person interactions and, that bane of digital communication, audio. (Audio was a problem because it was always necessary to identify who would have it on, who would be muted, if everyone could hear, and so on.)
What we learned from this experiment we applied to the next one. We obtained a device called an “Owl” that sits on the conference table. It has 360-degree camera capabilities and zeroes in on who’s speaking at any given time. It’s user-friendly because it just needs to be plugged into a laptop. Note the “Owl” is still a “lo-fi” solution (at less than $1,000 each) — but we found that for most conversations, its level of refinement is more than sufficient. Sometimes you don’t need to move onto more ambitious approaches!
The “job to be done”
The “Owl” also illustrates the principal of “jobs to be done,” which was introduced by professor and author, Clayton Christiansen. In this example, the “job to be done” is to facilitate a meeting that puts participants on equal footing. The “job to be done” was NOT to “use Teams” or “use Zoom.”
As a technology person, I always seek to keep that “job to be done” in mind regardless of how behind-the-scenes an activity is. In our service to customers, the “job to be done” is not, for example, “provide a checking account” but rather “provide a frictionless way for people to manage their everyday cash flows.”
My job is to help ensure this “frictionless” way of doing business — which brings us right back to adaptability, because the pace of change is relentless. Whatever infrastructure you use in your business — from communications equipment to factory robots — it should be designed for quick adaptability and resiliency. In banking, for example, today you may use your mobile device to make payments. Perhaps tomorrow you’ll use Alexa. And next year you may use an interface no one’s yet heard of. As contexts change, our “job to be done” remains providing you with a frictionless way to manage your finances. The value proposition remains, even though the way it’s carried out changes.
Data is the foundation
Whatever value proposition, always keep your company data at the center of your technology strategy. Data is like air and water. It’s that foundational. Capturing, using, and analyzing data across your business is essential to understanding where you are and where you want to go. Future-proofing your business means practicing good data discipline now. Otherwise, you can’t achieve effective — let alone adaptable — solutions to employee or client needs.
So, when it comes to technology budgeting, don’t skimp on data! Make investments that get useful analytics to the right people. Treat data as your second-most valuable asset, behind your people. Do everything in your power to ensure its integrity. And make sure data is readily available — not just to someone (like your IT department) but to everyone who needs it.
Marketing and sales managers need data about campaigns and sales interactions. Product managers need data about key inputs and final outputs — and everything in between. Executives need access to self-service dashboards to stay aware of what’s working and what isn’t. This way, as the future comes at you, your own data will tell you its shape.
No one knows the future — not you, not your customers, not your competitors. The only way to future-proof is to build adaptability into everything you do. Learn and fail fast, find and deliver your true value proposition, and treat your data with the respect it deserves. That’s an attitude for business success, wherever the business takes you.
Tim Brown, chief information officer at Johnson Financial Group, leads the development and implementation of the technology strategy to drive customer experience. Tim focuses on providing secure, reliable, and integrated technology solutions in alignment with corporate strategies.