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  • John Chambers, PhD

Sharks, Cuts, and Fields... Inspiration for Digitization

"The film is made in the editing room. The shooting of the film is about shopping…. get all the ingredients together, and you've got to make sure before you leave the store that you got all the ingredients.... and make a good cake - or not."

Philip Seymour Hoffman

The late Hoffman’s quote strikes me, as another mid-summer, digitization program stares me in the face.

Capturing departmental information during daily business demands is more than a chore. Operational stresses and details pile high in that shopping cart. And with so many aspects to your enterprise, often is heard, “Where do we start?”

The answer is with your value chain -- the architectural view that defines your top-level business processes, and which end with competitive advantage. Collect the data; collect the insights of your internal customers; understand your enterprise workflows. But know when to cut bait. Move fast, toward finite digital stories. It’s like being a master film editor, cutting the extraneous, knowing your subject and sustaining the narrative.

Workflows and Stories

Digitization entails the mechanics in developing automated workflows, but the optimal execution of a digitization program is in prioritizing the scenes of your automation. Well defined workflows have a material effect on productivity and competitive value. This isn’t just about obvious and explicit UX. Many subplots of your overall digital flow involve the touchpoints from machine to machine, routine to routine. Many manual processes will be tossed like steerage as you navigate the waters of thousands of data entities, and hundreds of touchpoints between you and the internal and external ecosystems.

What’s the story being told in your digitization campaign?

What are the key touchpoints - -the endogenous factors that drive value, and the exogenous factors that include supply chains, the environmental factors, competitors, and customers?

Use your roadmapping excellence to illustrate progress, achieved and forecast.

Rediscover every innovative idea that can be applied to the digitization program. In many cases you will be coaching other departments, helping them verbalize the actions that are involved in their operational day-in-the-life. Your enterprise value chain is your required foundation for any mature digitization effort. So ensure the foundation model is clear.

Then tear away at each process and ensure the workflow can be told in a story.

Prioritization and Inspiration

Digitization includes those point-to-point activities that underlie the more visible operations. The painstaking tasks of whittling away, prioritizing and laying out the roadmap, demand that you never lose sight of the value objective – how do we want the firm to be perceived; how does this digital implementation advance our brand, our capabilities and our reputation.

How does a digital IT operation add value?

Digitization captures the attention of customers and partners. (Customers are external and internal.) That might be in the expedited delivery of your services due to the digital automation; it might be the reduced cost of your operations; it is the key to a more rigorous quality control and validation assurance. Or it may well be the look-and-feel of your wares visible to the naked eye.

Move fast by prioritizing and cutting.

And be inspired by Verna Fields.

Collaboration makes the value in the value chain

Her name isn’t a household name unless you worked in the motion picture industry, or film is your hobby. But Verna Fields was the brilliant muse to Hollywood greats. The young man in the photo above is indeed a household name. Kneeling on the Martha's Vineyard sand 45 years ago, he’s flanked by several of the film’s team. Verna is on the far right side. She was the movie editor, coaching and steering the narrative’s flow through bits and pieces on celluloid. Her genius not only inspired and taught many great directors, but she was a major force in delivering a product in Universal Studio’s value chain – a product that's widely considered the greatest monster movie ever made.

They say that the amount of film shot to the amount seen in the final product is upwards of 4:1. For documentaries it’s orders of magnitude higher. The cinematographers and the set designers throw all but the kitchen sink into the lens. As actor/comedian Martin Short once said, “All you're trying to do in an improvisation is get as much material as possible for the editing room."

Digitization managers, like good film editors, wade through more data than will ever be used for the end state. Yet a good editor does far more than cut away to fit the story into a two-hour showing. Verna steered the director’s ship toward the director’s vision. The editor enforces a narrative flow, just as the digital leader drives a set of workflows that tangibly elevate the value of the automation you seek.

Verna knew how to sustain that narrative flow, to sustain the attention and urgency, to drive toward the story line's resolution. She was disciplined and thoughtful, empathetic of the audience, as she determined what was priority among the ocean of film clips -- just as you must sift through oceans of info and data in your digital program.

If you think the editor is some guy who clips scenes together like a robot, taking orders from a director, then you diminish the value of the cutter’s role. Cutting in our digital world is another way of prioritizing. Digital transformations are about building a mindset, not interminably gathering every single workflow element and movement in the firm; otherwise, you’d never be done. Your digital roadmaps will drive a transitional culture, employees who are always thinking of new means to automate. Understand what is automated among competitors, and what are feasible, expedited next steps.

Collaboration and competition are drivers to improvement.

Scour your competitors’ product behaviors, value propositions, and every other partner’s idea. In digitizing your environment, you don’t have just a blank film. Use competitors’ ideas as well as your own. This isn’t stealing IP. It is identifying successful approaches to automation and enhancing those ideas according to your own vision.

Every team member (and every competitor!) adds to the innovation. Remember the scene in Jaws as Chief Brody (played by Roy Scheider) is sitting on his beach chair, watching the waves. Suddenly the little Kitner boy is attacked. That moment of horror is captured in Brody’s face -- in an eerie vortex of shock. The visual technique is called the reverse zoom, where the camera is physically pulled away from the subject while simultaneously zooming the lens inward. It wasn't created on this shoot. It was the brainchild of Irmin Roberts, a second-unit cameraman for Hitchcock’s film Vertigo, nearly twenty years prior.

Innovation is available to those who remember it.

Innovation seepage

If it appears that I’ve understated Steven Spielberg’s magnificent leadership, that would be a pity. Although just in his late 20s, this tour-de-force, shark movie foreshadowed his brilliance as a director. Nevertheless, the success is a team success. The greatness in your own leadership is embracing “the best of the best” ideas among the team. While Peter Benchley wrote the god-awful novel (I won’t get started on that) he was also co-screenwriter for the film. And he had plenty of help. Assisting in the screenplay were Carl Gottlieb and uncredited Howard Shackler, and.... others! There was ideation in every scene. The famous USS Indianapolis speech, chillingly delivered by actor Robert Shaw, was largely reworked and rewritten by Shaw himself.

Capturing all ideas in your digitization program is the heart of the value chain’s success.

The digitization head is a people person, engaging the entire company, fishing for the best ideas. Every person on the team and every customer/partner in the firm will shape the value.

Take a look at a typical summary skeleton, value chain here. I insist on dotted lines in every value framework. They represent the shared innovation and inspiration.

The endogenous and exogenous forces are the factors of innovation. Ideas germinate from within the company as well as outside. Ideas penetrate silos by their nature. Use them, compile them, then cut them into the most important aspects you can leverage in your program.

Coaching and Partnering

While I used the step-by-step methodology religiously, I know that there is no singular recipe for optimizing your program. Your optimal approach will depend on your corporate factors and culture. You will be coaching many of the department leads, inspiring a vision, showcasing technology, validating infrastructure, and feeding the technical and app architecture into your QM.

You will need to partner closely with the top executive team, and they must actively promote the program with you, just as Fields partnered closely with Universal Studios executives and just as she partnered with and inspired(!) the very young director. Your program demands vision -- how you see the end state, which is really not an end state. There will be many sequels. Your digitization evolution will grow and morph, effected by competitive, regulatory, and strategic dynamics.

If your business processes are not yet defined into a thorough value chain, then go after it now. This is not something that should take months.

Just get it done.

If your corporate value chain is not defined and shared and official, then digitizing your environment is like trying to make a movie without a story. Prioritize your processes, and move. As leader of any digital transformation, your value is developing a vision, embracing it, selling it, and then working in the weeds. Or seaweed if you prefer.

Never forget, vision is achieved through team collaboration and team inspiration, from inside the company and outside.

Stay safe during the pandemic.

And stay safe in the water.


After her so-called shark success, Verna Fields became a Universal Studios executive consultant. Continuing to be a film muse for many artists, professionals, and producers, she died in 1982, at only 64 years of age. More proof that teaching is the spark of inspiration, she had also been a USC film professor in the 1960s. Her students included an extraordinary who’s-who of young Hollywood filmmakers. How lucky for them.

Her hands were at the forefront of storytelling, making the cuts, and culling pieces together. And she shaped the future. Inspiration’s spark is eternal, as shared ideas beget new ideas, evolving and magnifying with time and others’ hands. Her legacy was a force in the transformation of Hollywood…

While she received the much-deserved Oscar for editing Jaws, she was also nominated previously, for editing a film that was directed by another of her former and inspired students.

The film was American Graffiti, whose young director was George Lucas.

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