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It’s time to move beyond tech’s big bang attitude


Johannesburg, 29 May 2020
Read time 4min 40sec
Richard Firth, CEO, MIP Holdings
Richard Firth, CEO, MIP Holdings

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a tremendous eye-opener. It exposed weaknesses in our world yet also raised its strength. As we find our way through the crisis, many sacred cows are being left behind, and new realities are being contemplated.

Many of the new realities are stemming from technology. The more digitally mature or capable organisations were able to adapt to changing operational conditions with less pain than those that lagged far behind the curve. This success has brought about some backslapping in the industry, and for good reason. Once we had to look at the Amazons and Ubers of the world to explain digital transformation. Now we only need to point to the companies that did - or didn’t - join the digital train.

Yet the pandemic has also revealed there is something still missing from the technology sector. As Richard Firth, CEO of MIP Holdings sees it, the crisis also demonstrates that the industry hasn’t entirely transformed as much as it likes to believe.

“The most glaring indictment of technology is that the digital divide is still big and prominent, almost as if we haven’t done anything about it. That isn’t true, because a lot has been done. But, at the same time, the sector has also moved forward, and it’s moving so fast that people at the back may struggle to catch up.”

A new divide

The digital divide represents those unable to access modern technology at a meaningful and consistent rate. But it can now also be extended to include companies that are struggling or unable to mature their digital capability. Typically, these businesses would be shown the stick and warned their inability would lead to their demise.

But that relies on logic that the COVID-19 crisis has exposed as a dangerous folly: technology may be moving too fast for the laggards to catch up, and relying on progress to trickle down to the masses is a dead-end. This shouldn’t be news - the technology sector has been saying something similar when distancing itself from so-called big bang projects. It’s just not been applying this in every respect.

“We were among the first companies to look at creating annuity with customers,” Firth explained. “That means we stopped chasing the big bang deals and looked for that long-term value conversation with customers. This has been great and works, and the rest of the industry has also adopted the approach. Obviously, cloud services also made it a practical arrangement. But now we can see that while tech is no longer chasing a big bang business model, it still has a big bang attitude.”

What does that mean? Firth points out that, as an industry, technology still frequently over-promises without being entirely clear about the underlying complexity of modern solutions. This is not intentional, but a side-effect from continually trying to justify the value of fast-evolving products and services. Nonetheless, it’s bred an attitude that celebrates the big picture and takes the long view, but sidesteps issues such as complexity and trickle-down impacts.

This, argued Firth, is essentially still the big bang approach: “Sure, you’re meeting your customers more often and you can run smaller projects more frequently. But you become so focused on the big picture, the potential of the technology, that you don’t stop to ask if the small things are really working.”

Closing the gap

This trend is dangerous as it suggests technology progress is a simple affair. For example, many top schools are replacing children’s textbooks and laptops with iPads. But this makes little sense - an iPad is poorly equipped for many 4IR tasks. For example, it doesn’t have robust USB port choices, which can make robotics or programming challenging to do. Firth points out that if he tried to replace the laptops of his professionals with iPads, they’d think he’s crazy.

“An iPad is great for consumption, but in other ways it’s very limited. So why are we giving these devices to students, which I might add are incredibly expensive? It’s because people who don’t really understand technology beyond how to use it are being caught in the big bang perspective. An iPad is great technology, and we need technology for the future, so obviously, it will work to give iPads to students. But that is flawed logic.”

Technologists have a responsibility to help educate the world about what technology is and isn’t. But first, we need to stop placing so much emphasis on the potential of digital and progress. We need to stop thinking we can dream about tomorrow because today is taken care of. It’s not.

By promoting customer journeys, risk sharing and annuity as the central business mode, the sector has completed half of the journey. The other half requires us to step back a little from the big bang visions. The technology sector should focus more attention on the attitudes today that unintentionally keep people and businesses on the wrong side of the digital divide.

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