In the early 2000s, IBM was showing TV adverts pitching a future where all business would be done online. Everything from billing to inventory would be fully integrated, and IBM would be there to help companies make the transition.
In one advert, a clueless young web designer offered his equally clueless boss a choice of “a spinning logo, or a flaming logo”. The boss wistfully wondered if there was a way for customers to just order products, “from anywhere”. And the underling replied: “I don’t know how to do that.”
I was at University doing Computer Science and Management. Campaigns like these just got me pumped up about my career perspectives.
Six months later, I was working for IBM, expecting to be part of that future. Obviously, as a junior, I did not work on any exciting future-oriented stuff but instead supporting a software product that was probably in its final days. You might remember it: it was called Lotus Notes.
The 8 months I spent there gave me the time, insight and inspiration to set up my own company. I founded it sure that I’d convince companies about the benefits of conducting their business online. I would prepare them for that future by integrating the software they needed – for everything, from billing to inventory. Just like IBM’s promise from a few years earlier.
The future I imagined then never materialised. The first client I signed, a travel agency, never fully grasped the concept. It was once the number 1 travel agency in Rwanda. It’s not now.
Another client was a printing house. We had big plans to design an online service that would allow its customers to place new and repeat orders online; but the plan didn’t have full support from the management, and was never completed. I’m certain that the next number 1 printing house in Rwanda will be fully digital (assuming anything still gets printed then).
As I worked with these companies, it was evident that their leaders had no belief or interest to truly transform their businesses.
The examples I mentioned above at least did use and capture the value of the work we’ve done. Many other organizations failed to ever get to use the software we had built for them.
It’s incredibly hard for existing businesses and organisations to make transformation work. My guts tell me that very few companies have done it successfully. The largest online retailer, Amazon, wasn’t a traditional one that successfully transformed itself: it effectively started from scratch. The same applies to the fastest growing businesses in financial services, entertainment and many other domains.
The world has evolved into seeing great online businesses, but it wasn’t thanks to companies that integrated their functions with the help of technology services providers.
Starting my first business taught me that digitizing internal processes won’t result in transformation. You have to care about customers and users, and the outcomes they experience.
In 2014, under a partnership with the Government of Rwanda, I led a project that had a mandate to digitize government services. Its number 1 goal as “making access to government services considerably easier and less costly.” We created metrics through which we would measure “easy” and “less costly”. We then started building digital products that will gradually and measurably improve those metrics.
Despite all the changes I’ve seen during my career, I still believe in the future that IBM was trying to describe in those TV adverts. It’s there, waiting for us, but the greatest prize will belong to those entrepreneurs and leaders who are daring and willing enough to reimagine the experience they want to give to customers, and put that first.
That future doesn’t belong to those who invest in inward-facing technology; it belongs to organizations obsessed with delivering value to their customers and leveraging technology to do so.