The Blind Men and the Digital Elephant

It was six men of the Enterprise
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Digital Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.

(Adapted from John Godfrey Saxe)

Every day, enterprise executives sit in conference rooms pondering their metamorphosis from managers to “digital leaders.” This is fueled by hype-byte driven board members asking in every meeting, “Can you tell us your team’s plans for executing a digital strategy?”

The question inevitably leads to two response options. First, the most senior executive enters into a soliloquy about the “seamless convergence of digital elements across business organizations into a cohesive pan-enterprise digital advantage” based on the findings of a six-figure consulting group.

The other scenario is to “go around the table and have our six blind men (business unit leaders) discuss how they view the digital elephant and what they plan to do about it for ROI and competitive advantage.”

Now before I start getting hate mail from business unit leaders about being organizationally blind, let me say that I’ve been one and the metaphor is simply used for the purpose of reinforcing how differently the concept of digital can be viewed.

Enterprise IT: “God bless me! But the Digital Elephant is very like a wall!”

Marketing: “This wonder of a Digital Elephant (tusk) – is very like a spear!”

Data Analytics: “I see,” quoth he, “the Digital Elephant (tail) is very like a snake!”

Corporate HQ: “‘Tis clear enough the Digital Elephant (leg) is very like a giant tree!”

Sales: “I see,” quoth he, “the Digital Elephant trunk  is very like a pipeline!”

Finance: “The Digital Elephant (ear) is like a very thick invoice (editorial liberty taken)”

Unlike the blind men in the tent, all of the descriptions of digital in the boardroom are not wrong. The challenge is, in fact, that they are all right and based on the blind man’s/woman’s functional intimacy with certain aspects of digital.

The 21st century CEO needs to determine a way to turn a wall, spear, snake, tree, pipeline and invoice into an integrated Digital Strategy Elephant.

Most consulting firms would argue that it is critical to pull all those descriptors together and rationalize their connectedness so as to drive more efficiency and insight from the center.

Many feel that unless there is some agreement on a centralized digital strategy, there is no Elephant. Those who do reach a forced consensus on whether “digital” means devices or people or web or data will, for their sins, get the organizational elephant they were looking for. Now what to do with it?

I worked for 25 years at holding company headquarters for what I described as a “painfully decentralized” company with local operations in over 90 countries. There were hundreds of times where I lusted over pulling trendy international strategies into one centralized corporate initiative that I could get my hands on. But for one aggregated data initiative that gave me gray hair and a limp, that never happened. And in retrospect, decentralization and the agility inherent in it was the exact right thing to do .

Because if you think the executives sitting around the board table at US headquarters see the digital elephant differently, ask 90 countries what digital strategy means.

So as a career-long proponent of painful decentralization, I offer this advice to those CIOs and CEOs reading research and blogs on the imperative for a corporate-driven digital strategy:

Let your global business determine the characteristics of digital strategy and leadership as they see it from a feral perspective. Don’t be surprised if it looks nothing like the elephant you envisioned. It may look like an elephant that Picasso painted, and that might be the key to your digital competitive advantage.









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