What’s Killing Your Digital Transformation?

By Matthew Kleiman, Co-Founder & CEO of Cumulus Digital Systems

Steve Jobs was a well-known critic of consultants. In a 1992 speech at MIT, he argued that consultants “miss out on a key piece of professional growth at a company: learning from mistakes. Since they typically swoop in to offer advice and recommendations on a project, but don’t stick around to see the success or failure of their ideas, they’re only seeing a part of the process.”

Major consulting firms are helping traditional industries like energy, transportation, construction, and infrastructure digitize their outdated, legacy management systems. Modernization is sorely needed to help these companies navigate challenged supply chains, labor shortages, and sustainability requirements.

However, their advice is unintentionally spawning “zombie projects” and relegating promising new technologies to “pilot purgatory.” This leads to some marketing announcements in the short-term, but in the long-term it results in higher product costs and minimal real value. Let me explain. 

Matt Kleiman CEO of Cumulus Digital Systems

I have been involved in building, deploying, and supporting digital technologies in the energy, aerospace, construction, and infrastructure industries for more than a decade. My experience spans leading project teams within a Fortune 500 energy company to co-founding and serving as the CEO of an award-winning technology start-up. During that time, I’ve been amazed at how far we have come as an industry.

When I started in 2010, digital technologies were viewed with suspicion. It was usually forbidden to even bring a mobile device into an operating facility because of concerns that sparks would cause a fire. Now, these devices are ubiquitous and the idea that digitization is necessary has become conventional wisdom. 

Despite this progress, the industry still faces significant challenges when attempting to deploy digital technologies at scale. When discussing the industry’s resistance to change, I often hear reasons citing the conservative nature of the industry, a general lack of interoperability, and difficulty calculating an objective ROI, among others. These reasons may be true, but I recently saw something that made me realize the root cause is something else entirely. 


The Consultant’s Dilemma

I recently saw a presentation deck given by a partner at one of the most prestigious mega-consulting firms in the world. The presentation outlines a “digitalization journey” for a typical oil refinery. A recreated version of the slide looks something like this: 

What's killing your digital transformation?

While this diagram may look convincing, as is the expertise of the typical consultant, anyone who has successfully deployed a technology at scale knows that it’s incorrect. There are two critical oversights.

The first problem is that nowhere does this framework analyze current work processes at the facility to understand needs, limitations, and opportunities at the field level. Failing to properly analyze the current system before selecting a technology will inevitably result in generic, one-size-fits-all solutions that do not deliver real ROI once deployed. 

The company will conduct a proof of concept (POC), release an exciting video, and declare victory. Once the digitalization team departs, however, the technology will be quietly left in a storage locker. I know this because I’ve seen it happen firsthand. Pilot purgatory is a very real problem for the industry.

The second, and arguably more important, problem is that the “roll out” phase is outside of the “iterative development” box. To a person tasked with implementing the new technology in a large company, a task that is “outside the box” will be reasonably interpreted as being someone else’s responsibility. 

In fact, the very next slide recognizes that there is a problem with “very few projects reaching … scalable solutions.” The answers are passive, non-specific, and non-actionable, such as implementing “business model innovation ideas to unlock potential value with the supply chain” and an “obligation to bring ideas to industrial scale before replication.”

It’s no wonder we see pilots with technologies that never see the light of day and zombie projects that just won’t die. Consultants are telling their clients that scaling and improving digital solutions is someone else’s job. Whose job is it? That’s one question where consultants don’t seem to have the answer.


A Different Way

The existing consulting framework ultimately places the POC at the center of the digitalization journey. But in reality, it is just a stop along the way. An effective digital journey should start with a detailed, thorough understanding of the current state of the organization and business requirements. Digital solutions are then identified that most effectively meet those requirements within the context of the specific organization. A POC provides an initial proof point that the solution will or will not meet the stated requirements, but that is just the beginning. 

The hard part of deploying technology is not getting the POC right. The hard part where most technologies fail is deploying, maintaining, and integrating the solution at scale. That requires a sustained effort with multiple check-ins to ensure the process is going well, and most likely requires multiple iterations to get right. 

The industry needs a new framework. Consultants are great for setting corporate strategy, but industrial facilities need practical help from people who have real-world, on the ground experience deploying and supporting technologies at scale. 

That is why Cumulus is launching The Digital Mandate, an alternative approach to helping facilities digitize their mission critical work activities.  Our goal is to use a technology-enabled approach to enable true progress for facilities on their digitalization journey. Mission critical work is too important to entrust to industry outsiders, and that’s why we’re led by people who have been in your shoes and have gone through the digital journey themselves. 

The Digital Mandate’s core focus is using technology to help empower industrial facilities with faster, better decision-making. Because we know that digitalization is an iterative process, our strategy is based on the OODA loop, a framework developed by the U.S. Air Force. By using our experience applying this framework in an industrial setting, we can help facilities create a real-time feedback loop for sustainable success.

Send us an email to get started with a free digital evaluation.