What problems are digital solutions solving?

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Going digital for digital's sake doesn't always deliver the kinds of benefits enterprises need. First, define the business problem, then tell me how technology can solve it.

This year’s business conference season is in full swing, so I’ve been privy to the latest and greatest pitches from service providers around the world. The marketing has improved dramatically over the last few years. The presentations are shorter, the slideware is more direct and the speakers are more confident. “Digital” is everywhere, followed closely by “design thinking.” Cloud and as-a-service are old news. All of this should make a professional skeptic like me happy, but, after sitting through dozens of these pitches, I felt empty, and I started asking myself why.

The answer came to me in the middle of a particularly innocuous-but-energetic presentation on the brave new digital world. I realized I’ve seen this movie before. It is the same plot with a different script. In fact, this is a movie we’ve all seen many times. Service providers are pushing today’s new solutions in the same way they pushed yesterday’s: touting the features and benefits of a technology. And they all sound the same. I understand that, in an engineering-heavy industry like ours, technology generates excitement. But 80 percent of the people with the money are not engineers, and they don’t think this way!

The solution is simple but elusive: Service providers, please, please, please, tell me what business problem you are solving! It is only after showing me the destination that I will get excited about joining you on the journey. Every single provider story I have heard in this conference season sounds like this:

Provider: “You should fly with us!”

Client: “Why? Where are we going?”

Provider:  “We don’t know, but we will go on the A380, which is the coolest airliner around! It has two decks, four engines, carries a boatload of people, and most of your neighbors haven’t flown it yet!”

This story doesn’t cut it, folks. Sure, you’ll pique the interest of some aviation geeks, but that’s a small market. Design thinking ought to help, but, unfortunately, it’s been reduced to a cure-all phrase that lures you onto a plane without knowing your destination. Plus, the concept has been around for 50 years. Design thinking may be effective at describing the destination, but it requires engagement from the client, and, if you’re still pitching, you aren’t there yet.

In the sales process, your job is to describe the art of the possible. You must know enough about your target’s business to describe a few problems they probably have, and only then have you earned the right to say how you might solve them!

Now, while I am skeptical of the sales pitches, I am not skeptical of the potential. When I hear buy-side enterprises talk about their digital journeys at these very same conferences, everything makes sense. They each have a real-world problem they have to solve, and they apply the collection of advanced technologies we now know as “digital” to solving it. For all I know, they even use design thinking to define the initiative and the desired results!

When you strip out the buzzwords, it’s apparent they are bound for an exciting destination. And there is enormous potential for what businesses can achieve with technology, but without a real-world problem to solve, all we have is jargon.

It’s time service providers put away the engineering design schematics and show their clients the travel brochures.

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