I recently read a LinkedIn post titled : ‘ Why digital isn’t the economy’ by Alun Probert which resounded a long held conviction about where we should place digits and digital within the enterprise. For the risk of facing the brunt of digital enthusiasts (HR has actually created roles purely focused on digital and it is ok), I waited to see if someone would fire the first shot and Alun did exactly that. Let me now add my voice to his.
Two decades ago, before I joined the university for my undergraduate degree programme, I was involved in running our family business. My dad has been an entrepreneur and he ably involved us as and when we were of age. So right after high school, I was thrust in the deep end of real business – not the one I had studied in high school. I faced real traders, real competition, real money, real stock and I had real sales targets to meet.
The business was primarily wholesale distribution of consumer commodities such as sugar, salt, flour, cooking oil and soft drinks among others. Due to the poor infrastructure and inability of remote small scale traders to come to our store and make orders in a timely fashion, my dad invested in trucks that would pack an assortment of these commodities and transport them right at the doorstep of these traders.
We called this line of service, “mobile”. Literally, it was trade on wheels. I loved it due to the opportunity to travel away from home and interact with these traders at their doorstep. Back then, there was no IT or mobile phones at our disposal. The trucks provided the interface, the online store, the bandwidth to transport stock and all the infrastructure of a modern day m-commerce. It was still trade and the focus was on getting stock in a timely fashion to our remote customers in order to ensure they didn’t run out. At the end of the day, we didn’t look at how many peeped in the back of the truck, but rather how many orders were processed and paid for.
My history classes in high school remind me of the Trans-Saharan trade. It was made possible by camels traversing the Sahel and pitching tent in some open air spaces in the West and North of Africa. We may call it dromedary trade. The camel back then played the role of a fibre cable by carrying the order requested and the shipment information via an interface called an open air market.
Then we also had the Trans-Atlantic trade. It was made possible by boats sailing on the coasts of the triangular regions of Africa, Europe and America. Sugar, tobacco and cotton were sold to Europeans, slaves were sold to the Americans and textile and manufactured goods were sold to Africans. The boat replaced the camel in this case as the infrastructure to facilitate trade. But it was still trade. We didn’t call it boat trade.
Then we had planes for transport, telephone for communication, cheques and later on credit cards as modes of payment and then the World Wide Web. This further extended the trade value chain. Buyers needed not board the plane or the ship to go and place an order while sellers needed not board the plane or the ship to accompany the goods they had on sale. These two were connected by a web of value chain – the middle that connected demand and supply in a more efficient manner. We baptized this e-commerce but it is still trade.
Today, I think we are lost in carriers (camels, boats, planes and technology) and thinking they are the economy. The word e-this, i-that, digital have become commonplace. Adding a prefix “i” “e” or “digital” sounds cool and acceptable. But the bottom-line is that the activity has been deeply entrenched with a medium centric tag.
Those terms tend to get us carried away, potentially making us lose the meaning behind the carriers or facilitators of economy and social activity. That in my view is what makes IT over rated because people misrepresent it for what it is not. Just as the camel was resilient in the desert criss-crossing the harsh landscape, our digital landscape is rich with robust infrastructure (not just the network but the technology stack that defines its architecture). But ultimately, the camel never produced or sold anything or paid for it. The participants in the trade did.
In his book Bank 2.0, Brett King says this of loans: “Customers don’t need a car loan, they need a car”. The loan is an important enabler in the customer’s journey to drive a car but the loan is not the car. Similarly, ‘Airbnb’ is a platform that makes it easier for us to find accommodation. It is not the accommodation. Someone must provide a house, that has a bed and all the items that are required for a peaceful sleep. Those are things outside ‘ Airbnb’. The same applies for taxi hiring services like Uber. The word here is ‘hiring’ , not ‘taxi service.’ A car must exist, bought and driven by someone (or driver-less) and in serviceable condition to provide the service the customer requires which is movement from point A to B.
I am an IT practitioner. I have been one for close to 17 years. I have developed applications and managed some small and large scale automation projects in this region. I have also made presentations and written proposals for clients seeking to invest in technology. I know the immense value IT plays in the value chain.
However, it must be a silent enabler and not a loud distractor of socio-economic interaction. We need some level digital detoxification.
Yes, it is true this note is typed using word processing software and submitted on a digital network to an audience that will read it in digital form. It is also true that were it written in the 17th century, the media available then that enabled communication would have been used. Communication still happened.
The enterprise must therefore focus on maximizing on the existing means of doing business to be more efficient and effective in a rapidly changing environment. These platforms should be fully utilized, and not merely adopted. Whereas adoption is important, getting value is paramount.
About the author
Peter Muya, is an award enterprise transformation practitioner, possessing 15 years experience conducting mid and large-scale transformation projects in the telecommunications, financial services and public sector industries. He is the co-founder and a managing partner of PTI Consulting, a pan-African consulting practice providing ICT related business advisory services