How to Set Up Resilient Digital Foundations

Published on March 9, 2021

I fortunately missed the Great Hanshin earthquake of 1995 in Japan by a couple of months. We had recently moved from Japan, having lived just a few miles off the epicenter.

We were lucky. That earthquake was among the strongest, deadliest, and costliest to ever strike Japan. It killed 6,433 people and caused $100 billion in damage. Nasty as it was, the damage could have been worse. The Japanese building industry had been understandably proactive about resilient architecture. It had learned from the worst earthquake to hit Japan in modern times – the Tokyo-Yokohama (Great Kanto) quake of 1923.

Japan enacted the Urban Building Law in 1924 in response to the horrific damage caused. That particular monster killed more than 140,000 people, whereas the death toll from the second worst quake, which was the Great Hanshin earthquake of 1995, was 6,433. So, resilient design definitely works in building architecture. My intent here is to apply the concept to digital transformation. If 70% of all digital transformations fail, what can we learn on how to set up resilient digital foundations?

Resilient Design in Japanese Architecture

Resilient building architecture is a well-established, ancient concept in Japan. Consequently, the oldest wooden building in the world is Hōryū-ji – Temple of the Flourishing Dharma. It was founded in 607 CE by Prince Shotoku. The 122-foot-tall, five-story pagoda at the temple has withstood a staggering 46 quakes of magnitude 7.0 or more over the centuries. How? It exemplifies the adage that flexibility beats strength. The key to flexibility is a central pillar (shinbashira) built into the center of the structure. It’s like a spine in the human body. It can bend flexibly to absorb the natural forces acting upon the building. It’s trick, however, is in how a rigid pillar can help a solid pagoda to flex.

Earlier, I called the structure a five-story pagoda in English, but the Japanese word actually means a “five-layer tower”. The architectural trick is in the layering; the pagoda is basically multiple layers of boxes. When the ground shakes, each of these box layers sways slowly and independently of the others. During an earthquake, these pagodas appear to do a snake dance. Each consecutive floor moves horizontally in the opposite direction to the next. Every layer can bang internally against the internal spine (shinbashira). That motion dumps some of its energy into the massive central pillar, which then disperses it safely into the ground. Neat huh?

Now, Let’s do Resilient Digital Foundations

That snake-dance architectural design has been reapplied to modern constructions too. It was used in 2012 to build the world’s tallest tower, the Tokyo Skytree. A central concrete tube with dampers, allows a swaying motion of the structure. Right, so we know flexible building designs work. Now, how about resilient digital designs? There’s a ton of product, process and capability available on the resilience of individual pieces of digital business, but amazingly enough, very little that ties all those pieces together for a resilient digital outcome. Let me illustrate.

Try doing a google search of the term “digital resilience”. More than 90% of the results in the first several pages relate to cybersecurity. OK, try “digital reliability”. That gives you results about reliable digital and engineering machinery hardware. Now try googling “digital agility”. That produces somewhat better outcomes, although a vast majority relate to “agile software development”. That’s a technique to deliver significantly better software solutions. Therein lies the issue. Of course, the IT industry has made huge strides in resilient solutions. The question is in how much of the language of resilience is related to the individual technology pieces versus the (so to speak) whole pagoda.

Resilient Parts versus the Resilient Whole

Hardware and software reliability have skyrocketed in recent years. On the other hand, resilient digital business models? Not so much! Or, approaches for predictable digital transformation outcomes? Not really! Worse still, business leaders are still wary of the inflexibility enforced by digitization. How should we set up resilient digital foundations in our companies?

The emphasis on resilient parts versus the whole is simply a result of the technology industry being relatively young. It’s understandable. And, the good news is that as business leaders, focusing on a reliable “whole” is almost entirely within our control. We need to focus on asking the right questions, and on setting the right goals.

Just ask two questions: What’s my digital transformation goal? In other words, am I measuring Wall-Street grade outcomes like money and people? Second, am I focusing on resilient “transformation”, or resilient “new construction”. Changing an existing, legacy digital capabilities to make it resilient is a different game than starting digital from scratch. Most digital failures occur due to change management.

Why Digital Transformations Fail

On a different note, the topics of “digital transformations failure” and “Japanese resilience” have been on my mind recently. The Japanese translation of my book “Why Digital Transformations Fail” comes out on April 1st in Japan. It faithfully includes all the original checklists for successful digital transformation, plus Japan-specific content. I’m really excited, but in hindsight, I should have changed one thing. The book describes a five-stage digital transformation model, which uses the traditional stair-step graphic. Perhaps I should have used a five-layer pagoda model instead!

Tony Saldanha is a News Columnist at Grit Daily. He is the President of Transformant, a consulting firm specializing in assisting organizations through digital transformations. During his twenty-seven-year career at Procter & Gamble, he ran both operations and digital transformation for P&G’s famed global business services and IT organization in every region of the world, ending up as Vice President of Global Business services, next Generation services. He is an advisor to boards and CEOs on digital transformation, a sought-after speaker, and a globally awarded industry thought leader.

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