Computers changed the way that businesses operate, and now digital technologies are changing society too.  Digital practitioners are emerging as the professionals who will deploy these technologies in business enterprises. They must also consider the social dimension.

Business Use of IT

Business use of Information Technology (IT) started in 1951 when Lyons of London used their LEO 1 computer for bakery valuations. LEO’s applications increased during the 1950s to include such things as production, accounts, payroll and, under contract to the UK Meteorological Office, scientific calculations.

Such applications may still form (pun intended) the lion’s share of business IT applications, but the way in which they are delivered has changed. The introduction of personal computers allowed much greater user interaction, the Internet brought universal connectivity, and the World-Wide Web moved the user from the periphery of the IT systems to their heart. The old “input-process-output” model, with the process stage visible to and understood by just a few experts, is gone.  The process information is exposed to end users, who can change it.

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The Digital Revolution

Digital technologies have built on the Web and added to the business capabilities of IT systems. Led by cloud computing, they also include social computing, mobile computing, and big data analysis. Networking has vastly increased the value of IT systems that monitor and control their surroundings, giving us the Internet of Things. Cognitive computing and artificial intelligence are adding to the analytical capabilities, and supporting a more human style of user interface.

These technologies do not just alter the way applications are delivered; they make possible new applications, such as shopping, job seeking, news publication, and product support. Like the original use of computing, the new applications are changing business but, more than this; they are changing society. This is the digital revolution.

The Business-IT Gap

In the early days, the business people had their visions of what computing could do, and hired technicians to turn them into reality. Engineering computer hardware, and programming the software, became specialized disciplines. A business-IT gap grew between two sets of people neither of whom wanted to, or could, do each others’ jobs.

There are examples of technicians launching successful businesses, most notably Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg but, particularly with traditional IT, there is still a gap between business people who don’t understand why their IT is such a big cost and IT people who don’t understand how it could help the enterprise make a bigger profit.

The Digital Practitioner

The digital technologies go hand in hand with new approaches to development and operations.  “Agile” methodologies result in projects that deliver value continuously from their early stages and evolve through user feedback. “DevOps”, by combining development and operations, ensures that developers know how customers use their systems, and understand their needs.

The digital practitioner is emerging as a new professional that can help enterprises harness digital technologies and methods to gain business benefit. The exact role is still evolving. As Forrester’s Charles Betz points out in his book on Digital Delivery, “Digital investments are critical for modern organizations and the economy as a whole. . . Now is an ideal time to re-assess and synthesize the bodies of knowledge and developing industry consensus on how digital and IT professionals can and should approach their responsibilities.” 

Digital Value

The role of the enterprise in society is changing too. Betz puts an understanding of digital value at the start of a digital practitioner’s education, and few would question this. But what is digital value?

The World Economic Forum White Paper: Unlocking Digital Value to Society: A new Framework for Growth gives it a social, as well as a business dimension, adding indicators such as carbon emissions and job creation to financial ones like operating profit and value addition.

The paper says that some social value is “trapped” because there is no economic incentive for businesses to provide it. There is, however, a moral incentive because digital technology “has given the world a front-row seat to business decisions and operations, and no company can make decisions that are unacceptable to public opinion without scrutiny, severe penalty or, in the most extreme cases, extinction.” The unstated implication is that an evolution of enterprise models is needed for delivery of more social value.

Delivering Value

In The Open Group, the Open Platform 3.0™ Forum is looking at how enterprises can gain business value from new technologies. With members of other Open Group Forums, its members participate in the Digital Practitioners Work Group, whose aim is to develop and promote an understanding of what it means to be digital, and which is working to create a Digital Practitioners’ Body of Knowledge. Such work, in industry bodies and academia, will define a professional approach to the use of digital technology.

That approach cannot now just take account of machines and money. It must also consider people. Digital practitioners should help their companies succeed by achieving social objectives. Business is an integral part of society, and technology can help the business deliver social value.