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Q&A Tuesday: Jonathan Reichental on Digital Transformation and 21st-Century Excellence

Jonathan Reichental, Ph.D., is the Founder and CEO of Human Future, a global business and technology education, advisory, and investment firm. He is also an author, speaker, and thought leader helping to shape the conversation around digital transformation and 21st-century excellence. We spoke with Reichental about the disruptive forces in today’s economy, the imperative to change, and the crucial role of technology.

You help companies adapt to a changing, tech-driven economy. What kinds of challenges do they face along the way?

Among several services my organization provides; we help individuals, enterprises, and public agencies plan, prepare, and manage through the uncertainty, demands, and challenges of the future. We look well beyond just technology. We also help them discover new ways to prosper or re-engineer how their products and services are designed and delivered.

In these opening years of the fourth industrial revolution, there’s never been a more unpredictable time for organizations. They face significant challenges. Top among them is relevancy. With entry barriers for startups and competitors so low now, disruption can come at a moment’s notice. A successful enterprise today can quickly become a struggling business tomorrow.

Remaining valuable, creating market differentiation, and exceeding customer expectations are some of the chief qualities that must be recognized as proactive, on-going efforts. A lapse in any one of them and you might be toast. We take a human-centric approach to ensure that outcomes favor people and the planet.

How can companies get over the hurdles that inhibit change?

In my many years of work and research in this area, I’ve discovered a number of core reasons why so many organizations fail to adapt to change. For many, they simply don’t see the scale and speed of the change ahead of them. Then when they do, it’s too late. It’s a growing number, but still, too few organizations pay attention to quickly shifting behaviors and changing technology. This has to be a deliberate effort.

Exploring future scenarios and understanding the possibilities of emerging technologies should be central to operations. In the 21st century, disruption is defined by scope, impact, and velocity. These are all at scales that have no precedent in history.

Another major reason why organizations fail to respond to change is incentives. I believe that leaders must be supported in taking bold steps. If there is no advantage to taking a risk—knowing that failure is a possibility—an individual will assume business as normal. This is particularly evident in the public sector, but found in varying degrees in all industries.

How quickly do companies need to become “data-driven”? Is there a point when refusing to implement new technology becomes a serious liability?

An organization that fails to recognize and respond to the shifts in their industry will soon be obsolete. It’s really as simple as that. Every business today is a technology business and the fuel that largely powers it is data. If a data strategy is not being executed today, you’re already late.

Now is the time to understand the essential role of data in your organization, get the required education, hire the right talent, and put it to work. Those that use data and new technologies to compete and prepare for the future will easily win over those that don’t.

What technologies are having the biggest impact on accounting and finance departments specifically?

Certainly, there are many more tools available today for managing the operations of the finance and accounting departments. They range from automating repeatable processes to improved analytics and reporting, to better integration with other organizational functions.

Like every other unit, this area isn’t immune to change. For example, finance and accounting have to deal with a myriad of growing receivable and payables options. This could range from supporting a new payment device to having to handle cryptocurrency.

New analysis tools are helping finance and accounting leaders better understand their business by being augmented by artificial intelligence. The tools for delving deep into the data of the business, identifying patterns, and making predictions on trends are making a real impact.

Leaders in this space need to look to improved data integration with other functions including their external stakeholders, expanded automation such as expense management, and empowering non-finance teams to self-service their accounting needs.

Do you have any advice about effectively selecting and implementing technology?

Organizations need to become really comfortable with experimentation. For far too long, the deliberation of selecting a new tool has been a bureaucratic endeavor. It’s been the domain of checklists, demos, and interviews. Of course, those processes add value, but in addition, I advise that time and investment be made in trying new things in a contained and safe environment.

The innovation process, where experimentation might live in an organization, has grown in popularity in the last few years. It needs to become more common and it needs work to provide more value. It can’t be seen as a novelty by other leaders; moreover, they should be incentivized to engage with the innovation process to collectivity champion success for the business.

Finally, an organization should evaluate new technology in all stages of its maturity. Even an emergent, speculative new technology needs to part of the agenda, but perhaps in a less rigorous fashion at first.

How important is the relationship between the client and the vendor now that technology is at the forefront of business?

In today’s supply chain, a vendor is increasingly a respected partner. The complex global supply chain integrates disparate organizations together such that demarcation can be challenging. Great relationships and codified arrangements are essential to everyone’s success. Technology has consummated these dependent relationships.

However, let’s remember and pay attention to the human aspects of these connections. We’ll continue to need more emphasis on relationship management. Nobody cares when things are going well, but when they invariably need some attention, our human connections will really matter in getting a good outcome for everyone.

Most companies want to make progress towards digital transformation. What’s something all of them should be doing right now?

Digital transformation is really about delivering delightful new experiences to customers by reinvention across the development, design, and delivery of a product or service. The central action an organization can do right now, assuming they are not already on their digital transformation journey, is to spend time and energy on visualizing an updated vision of themselves.

This must include understanding how their market is evolving and then imagining their repositioning as the provider of choice. They should ask questions like, “How might our future customers expect to receive and use our product and service?” or “Will our product or service be relevant in 5 years?” Without this visioning phase, I guess it could be haphazard rather than managed.

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