Is industry becoming irrelevant to digital success?

The majority of present-day digital and innovation projects typically involve digitising products and services to combine or reach across traditional sectors. Enterprises are changing (shortening) traditional customer journeys or creating new digital-only products which have no obvious spot on the value chain. There is a theme here: industry irrelevance. The lines are increasingly blurred, and we’re seeing industries learning from each other, as technology components mature and techniques are normalised in a way that can be applied the same way to banking, agriculture, retail and media.

Consider industry-leading technology companies that have pushed the boundaries on innovation over the last decade. The likes of Uber, Airbnb, Netflix, Amazon (and locally, Takealot) are prominent not because they knew their sectors better than their competitors, but rather because their execution of technology and digital customer experience was beyond what was on the market. These platforms are fast, intuitive, easy-to-use and responsive, so they go viral. These are the traits we want in our solutions, and they didn’t come from some hidden industry experience, but rather a marriage of solving real problems and excellence in technology execution.

If you want to be competitive, you have to be the best. This means that you can’t solely rely on industry standards and norms. You have to learn from and build upon what the market is doing in all sectors, all the time.

Execution is more important than industry knowledge

Broad expertise in technology execution is the difference between good and great. Teams need to have diversity in experience across varied sectors, and thus the knowledge to tailor problem-solving towards different scenarios. There is more to be gained from lessons in building similar systems in multiple sectors, than by knowing one inside out.

If you want to be competitive, you have to be the best. This means that you can’t solely rely on industry standards and norms. You have to learn from and build upon what the market is doing in all sectors, all the time.

If you’re an insurer creating a self-service digital product for customers, you should have an engineering team who is an expert in self-service digital products – not a team who is an expert in insurance. You are the insurance expert that will be guiding the team in industry practices, and business operating context. You want a team that has seen it all, and offer ideas that challenge the industry norms. Not just because it will result in delivery, but because it creates the opportunity for innovation.

Missing industry knowledge is not why tech projects fail

Tech projects rarely fail due to missing industry knowledge or experience, but rather due to missing technology experience, awareness, practices and pragmatism in execution. These are things which are universal to projects in any industry. Having a technology team with some experience in the industry will certainly help – but it won’t make or break project.

The reality is that most failures are borne from issues in delivery that have little to do with industry expertise. Weak or non-existent technical leadership, planning, fundamental skills, tools, practices are the culprits here. A veteran team with lessons in delivery of complex solutions in multiple scenarios can navigate any project. They can learn each context rapidly, and surmount the real killers of delivery: expectation management, collaboration, productivity and technical know-how.

The narrow expertise bias

Teams who have been deeply embedded in a single industry often develop “blinkers”, hiding possible solutions which are obscured by repetitive industry system norms.

Our brains are naturally wired to find patterns in seas of information. When engineering teams are biased because of their narrow experience within a single business or industry, they risk boxing themselves in, hiding alternative ideas for how problems can be solved with technology. With diversified experience, teams can challenge your thinking and bring new, innovative ideas from different industries, teams and platforms.

Teams with a broader view of technology, domain, and business processes have a hunger to learn and to solve problems. Broad technology practice trumps narrow industry expertise, clinging to industry standards will prevent you from differentiating your business, and remaining competitive.

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