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  • John Chambers, PhD

Digital's Field of Dreams

Nearly twenty years ago, Field of Dreams went viral, and so did its set design. The Iowan baseball diamond became a tourist stop, fortuitously sharing the film’s closing images. They built it, and others came.

Over the past several years, the site has been purchased, the ball field still protected, and the owners endeavored to scale that success, expanding the “dream.” At present that future expansion is still unknown. But still left are images and sounds, of James Earl Jones’ tale-telling, which colored a marvelous story of regret and second chances.

So how do we go from baseball to digital execution?

Companies seek to digitize their environment and their product offerings -- build them, and customers will come. So we think.

But they won’t keep coming, if you can’t sustain.

And you can’t sustain without an impeccable execution model.

Ironically, some startups may have devised an execution model that is superior to the mature firm; the investors expect that, skeptically reviewing and eschewing proposals with no plan for sustainable operation and scalability. Companies that have been around a while, with legacy customer bases and operational processes, hurry to fork their application development services, and supplement with a digital product arm.

They forget to refine that digital entity into a more explicit digital execution model -- a company within the company.

Your Firm's Digital Product Entity (DPE)

The digital development group, your Digital Product Entity (DPE), is not R&D only. It is an outwardly focused group, creating online products and online experiences for a world that expects digital access, digital fluency, and ease of use. The world has rapidly gone digital, to the other end of the continuum. As one consultant told me, referring to his financial adviser, “I really don’t want to get a phone call from my agent because I live in cyber space. In fact, I’ll look for another rep if that’s how she is trying to reach me.”


Well, I haven’t seen empirical studies that will indicate such an extreme view, but it didn’t surprise me either.

Digital experiences are the expectation. Customer intimacy requires innovative and digital engagement, the magic of phantasmic, human touch -- the virtual handshake and surreal embrace. The means to get help or find value in our firms is no longer a car ride to the store, a visit to the vendor’s headquarters, or a phone call that’s forwarded four times before we reach the problem-solver.

We’re past that.

Digital is the new normal.

Every firm is building something. Every firm is developing or sourcing applications. For your DPE, what is your digital execution model?

It is your model of company-within-your-company -- welcoming customers, customer feedback, competitive pressures, a changing landscape, and a value chain. Best in class DPEs are as customer-oriented as Amazon, as efficient as Southwest Air, and as quality focused as FDA auditors, all packaged inside this end-to-end "internal firm" --your digital product entity.

Consider its model, with logical inputs, touch points and feedback loops. Most importantly, the roadmap of your DPE must be transparent -- not just familiar but, rather, embraced and championed by every executive in the firm. This will be daunting to enterprises who operate in silos and whose cross-functional communications are still only dreamlike aspirations, not yet immersed into the culture.

The best Digital Product Entities are gloved with competencies in the following domains:

- Strategy and vision

- Customer analytics

- Business collaboration

- Product management

- Customer experience

- Artful and Integrated DevSecOps delivery.

This means all the above disciplines; not just the last couple, and all inside your DPE. This is the challenge for firms who see the digital group as nothing but a factory awaiting a widget request, so they can punch out some coded miracle for the masses.

That is a mistake.

The DPE ought not be a black box.

Your digital division should be like your closest and most trusted business partner, with the added advantage of being a family member. Without a company-within-a-company perspective, the DPE will not acknowledge its role as end-to-end value creator and sustainer. And it will operate as a team of application code writers and engineers, not as business professionals with a cohesive execution model, ensuring longevity and endurance and the means to sustain.

Sustainability and Fluency

Sustaining your digital operation is harder than pitching to Shoeless Joe Jackson; your digital creators are long on ideas and outputs. But innovation requires delivery execution; otherwise, the dream products are quickly imitated by a competitive powerhouse who will seize your market.

Your product management group inside the DPE are business-attuned collaborators, speaking in the semantics of corporate portfolio management, partnering with the board.

Then the cycle shall follow a robust pattern.

No surprises are welcome when we release software. But please note! Surprises are not just unexpected defects or performance hits. Surprises mean internal communication dysfunction.

There should be no released, major solutions of which the C-suite was unaware.

Tactically, the business shouldn’t be selling digital value to customers that is not in the digital pipeline; similarly, the DPE should not be building capabilities that are not endorsed at the executive, strategic level.

This all implies that everyone is communicating with everyone.

If an executive in any division is asked what is going on in the company’s digital product arena, they should know. Of course we are not suggesting they should be aware of recent sprints, the scrum master's schedule, the CX methodology being used, or whether an embedded function was tested.

However, we are suggesting (imploring) that the executives are knowledgeable in the high level frontiers and product types under creation.

While every executive should understand the corporate value chain and the charters of every department, they should also know what new capabilities are being delivered to customers in the coming months. Optimal business collaboration is when your executive staff is aware of big-picture, digital capabilities that are on deck and imminent.

Your executives should be staring at product and experiences at their desktop, fully familiar and immersed into your firm's distinguished offerings.

All in the Game Together

Consider various sectors. Depending on your firm’s value proposition, is the DPE creating transformational enhancements to call centers? Are they transforming a supply-chain, Build-Your-Car animation app on your automotive web site? Are they launching more seamless access to holistic patient data for your health care clients?

"No surprises" means no surprises.

As a senior executive, your role is to know and articulate the digital journey that your firm is pursuing, not just in your own department but across the value chain, whether you're CIO or CPO, Operations Executive or Corporate Counsel.

One might argue that it’s sufficient for the Operations head or Chief Marketing Officer to tune their hearing toward the digital product pipeline. Their jobs are to understand the changes in purchasing habits, competitive pressures and delivery expectations of the customer base. Of course.

But it’s more than they.

It's more than a couple of executives.

It’s everyone’s job.

As stated above, the head of Legal, of Culture and HR, the CFO, the head of Quality, and even the board should be fluent in the direction of digital offerings.

There shouldn’t be a need for some ethereal voice reminding the executive staff to print the roadmap, like ghosts whispering to Ray Kinsella in a dreamy Iowan farm.

The digital product team should be locking arms with the strategy and operational leadership, as well as the entire C-suite, corporate executives, and board. They are all in the game together.

The digital development patterns translate to the leadership team’s strategy -– the digital taxonomy and value offerings are not a skunk works effort on a sandlot ball field; rather, they correspond/align to the vision and the strategy of the corporate leaders.

The communication dynamic is a shared accountability.

If you Build it... Sustain it

The innovation economy demands an exceptional level of versatility amongst the top leadership team. But that won’t be exceptional in the next years; it will be table stakes.

In your firm, is the digital product team transparent and aligned? Moreover, is the digital product team presenting/collaborating so that their innovative capabilities are understood by the senior executive staff?

Demand your operational leadership, your administrative leadership, and your entire executive staff have more than a passing familiarity with the digital product roadmap. Create a conversation and an expected way of life whereby new digital products and solutions are not surprises to any senior executive. And run the DPE value chain like a company-within-a-company.

That Digital Product Entity, your end-to-end digital enterprise, should be assessed with the vigor of a financial valuation and the sensitivity to voices of change:

- What are they doing?

- How are they structured, funded, monitored?

- What is their future impact to the firms’ viability?

- If they build it, will they come...?

Unlike Ray Kinsella standing on his baseball diamond, buttressed by a supernatural cornfield, you may not get a second chance.

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