We will not get “ubered”, not on our watch

Why Abstraction leads Strategy for Digital Transformation.

Digital Transformation is like the 6 blind men touching the elephant: everyone feels something different. This is not a big problem for a start-up where everyone is making it up as they go, but it’s life threatening in a legacy business trying to transform.

Each person in the leadership team has a transformation strategy to future-proof their part of the enterprise against new digital entrants; we will not get “ubered”, not on our watch.

The reliance on strategy and tactics are critical for moving on a straight growth line and staying within the guardrails. The issue is how to take a hard left and stay on the road. And this is nearly impossible to do without shared understanding at a level that can be shared.

Hold on as we go up high, not in the cliché way of a 50,000 foot CEO view, but mentally using the concepts of “abstraction.”

At issue here is that Executives everywhere know how to run their business, create value, and make money — they do it every day. But 99% of what they do is process, looking for productivity gains or accretive revenue from acquisitions.

Given the complexity of a business, people are compartmentalized into roles and functions, organized into groups and divisions, elevated by specialized disciplines and knowledge; this naturally limits visibility into the essence of how the business operates to create value as a whole.

Abstraction gets everyone on the same page, sharing the same knowledge, and using the same vocabulary: language empowers the team. This starts in 1939, when S.I. Hayakawa wrote a book, Language in Action, describing a Ladder of Abstraction using a cow, Bessie.

We start at the bottom with the literal fundamentals: the basics like raw materials, atoms, molecules, flesh and bones to represent a “thing.” This thing is named Bessie and we understand it to mean a cow.

Moving up the ladder of abstraction, we can include a cow as a thing of livestock since it shares common characteristics with other livestock like chicken and pork. Moving up the ladder, concepts of “farm assets” and a more generic “assets” and finally “wealth” are understandable in a context of being higher levels with certain shared elements and concepts.

So WTF does this have to do with Digital Transformation of your business?

How do you and the leadership team describe your business? How do your customers — consumers, resellers, aggregators, et al — describe your business? How do direct and edge competitors describe your business?

And where do these answers fit on your business ladder of abstraction? Depending upon the words and concepts you can, and must, go up and down on the ladder. For the most part the top of the ladder is a concept that envelops customers, business model, and resources. The bottom of the ladder are tangible things: things customers buy and use.

These abstractions can be organized into a framework using Business Architecture. This framework is the cornerstone to shared knowledge and understanding of the “as is” business and the “to-be” business that will emerge from the digital transformation program.

By using this higher level of abstraction, all stakeholders are able to have a shared vocabulary, knowledge and understanding, and a roadmap for development.

When you turn the wheel to a hard left, the leadership team and staff will understand the context as if the new guardrails where still on the straight and narrow.

Samuel Clements said, if I had more time I’d have made it shorter. If you want to transform, you’ll share the words and ideas.

Read more in the series:

Digital Transformation and Business Bones

That Doggone Digital Transformation

Why Abstraction leads Strategy for Digital Transformation

Digital Transformation through alignment

Contact me to continue the conversation.

Larry W. Smith

Twitter: @lwsmith10011