It all started with one of the earth’s most precious resources: Water.
Poured over red-hot coals, steam powered the locomotives that connected once remote, rural villages of 18th and 19th century Europe and Asia.
But soon, that precious liquid wasn’t moving things along fast enough and the Second Industrial Revolution was upon us.
Leading up to World War I; electricity, the development of mass production, and the invention of the internal combustion engine saw men rumbling over quickly-developing roads seated atop thousands of pounds of metal and a tank of gasoline.
As literal highways began to grow up, so did an information superhighway that connected personal computers and the other digital devices which began slowly replacing analog and mechanical devices starting in the 1980s.
But it doesn’t end with the Digital Revolution.
Perhaps the most transformative, the most mind-bending, the most revolutionary Industrial Revolution to date is the one we’re living in today.
The fourth Industrial Revolution, a term first introduced in the 2016 World Economic Forum, is already seeing technology blur the line between real and digital with the development of robotics, AI, the Internet of Things, 3D printing, autonomous vehicles, and more.
Cutting-edge, mind-boggling, and perhaps even a little frightening though it may seem—chances are you’re already participating in one of the most transformative aspects of professional and social life in the the 4IR (hip—I know).
Who among us hasn’t used a digital tool to communicate with an old college buddy, had Mother’s Day flowers delivered to a doorstep in a distant city, or tracked down a rare band t-shirt on the other side of the world?
Digital platforms and third-party plugins are facilitating transactions on a daily basis in today’s modern lives and businesses.
Breaking it Down: What Exactly are Digital Platforms?
At its core, all a “digital platform” is is a business model that’s built upon using technology to facilitate exchanges between two or more interdependent groups.
Often they exist to enable a producer and an end user to complete a transaction. Think of the way independent online businesses and Ebay integrate with PayPal to facilitate payment in exchange for goods.
Digital platforms can also enable large-scale information sharing to enhance collaboration and innovation—network effect growing the platform’s value with each new participant. Just look at Facebook’s business pages that allow businesses to exchange information with their users, often in real time.
One of the coolest features of digital platforms right now is their ability to incorporate other digital tools via an application programming interface (API). APIs make it possible to create a totally custom business solution by bringing together precisely the platforms and tools you need.
For example, we built our workflow content automation (WCA) platform Dropbox Forms to integrate with most open APIs.
One popular integration among our customers is the Google Maps API. By sourcing and autopopluating always-correct addresses right inside the workflow, Dropbox Forms helps eliminate human error and save time whether it’s for regional managers who have to process hundreds of purchase orders from all over the country or hiring managers who have to handle sensitive onboarding documents for thousands of contractors.
How Do I Make the Most of Digital Platforms at My Business?
We’re not saying that to compete in the digitally transformed marketplace you have to become a digital platform.
If your current business model is working for you and market analyses indication you’re heading in the right direction, by all means don’t panic and start laying off all your workers and closing down your warehouses.
What we are saying is that it’s vital that you understand and are prepared to participate in the platform economy. Sooner or later adopting digital platforms at your organization will be a major factor in your digital transformation, growth as a business, and keeping your competitive edge.
For example, financial institutions like Simple are adding digital platforms like apps on top of their standard banking services in order to take advantage of a market shift toward customer experience and away from selling a bunch of banking products or packages.
Their digital app platform empowers them to offer a medium and customer service features like goal setting and low fees that appeal to an emerging, tech-savvy demographic.
As regulations change and entering certain market segments becomes more expensive, we’ll likely see this trend continue as an affordable way for financial (and similar) institutions to remain competitive.
You might find that a digital platform is exactly what you need to facilitate payment to improve your lead time and take some of the manual, repetitive order processing tasks off your customer service agents.
Or perhaps a digital platform where new hires can access important documents or watch training videos will free up a few hours for your HR team to catch up on the important compliance training they’ve had to put off for weeks.
Digital platforms aren’t always big, scary job snatchers. In fact, their implementation more often than not allows talent to get back to the work they love—and were hired—to do.
How to Evaluate and Choose the Right Digital Platform(s) for Your Organization
Evaluating and choosing the right digital platform is a lot more than just wading through a whole bunch of technical jargon. There are several cultural and political themes we’ll explore here that should also be explored during your evaluation.
That said, it’s also important to remember an overarching theme of the fourth Industrial Revolution: Change.
The technology and capabilities of digital platforms are only going to keep changing.
Instead of letting yourself get overwhelmed by the pressure of making the “perfect” selection, use these steps to make the best decision you can in the time you have and be sure to build regular reviews and updates into step four—implementation.
Step 1: Get Crystal Clear on Your Company’s Key Objectives
There are a plethora of digital platforms that fulfill different duties. If you don’t have any criteria by which to narrow your options, it’s likely your evaluation process will feel,and may very well be, never ending.
Getting crystal clear on the company-wide objectives and expectations for your digital platform is absolutely necessary if you want to make a timely decision.
However, there is a common snag many decision makers and change implementers run into when evaluating new technology—which objectives take precedence?
In the case of business objectives that are very close in priority, consider which option will be easiest to implement with the resources you have on hand and which will have the quickest positive impact.
If, for example, your revenue relies heavily on contractors working in different states; you’ll probably want to prioritize implementing a digital platform like ZeroCater did to make worker onboarding as quick, automatic, and legal as possible. Selecting an alternative password management platform system can probably wait for another day.
Being able to generate ROI early on is encouraging for the organization and inspiring for those among your team who may still be doubtful of the importance of digital platforms.
And by going to a step further to prioritize these objectives, you’ll be better equipped to stay on the straight and narrow to make unbiased, well-informed decisions even when the going gets tough or you begin questioning whether anything you’re doing even makes sense anymore (Yes, we’ve all had those moments).
Questions to Ask
Beck Technology recommends you ask these questions when evaluating your business objectives on your way to adopting a digital platform:
- What do we hope to achieve as the end goal by investing in this technology?
- How is this approach better than our current process or technology?
- What processes or roles will change as a result of this software?
- What are the time and resource considerations that come into play?
Step 2: Make Sure the Time is Right by Securing Support
In this step, you should encourage and address questions about how the success of digital platforms will be tracked and develop a clear understanding of the level of priority management has given your digital platform project in the scheme of the entire organization. Putting a plan together helps you to gain confidence and support from others who might be involved. An idea without a plan is just an idea as far as your colleagues see. And idea with a plan is something worth talking about seriously.
Organizational support helps ensure company-wide buy in so that roadblocks to your success are easier to remove as the implementation of your digital platforms ripples across a variety of departments. Additionally, organizational support isn’t just in your financial best interest—it also goes a long way when it comes to office politics.
Questions to Ask
Again, Beck offers a few questions to ask to get the ball rolling when it comes to establishing open communication and buy-in from management:
- What questions do you have regarding our business case and objectives?
- At what stage or stages do you wish to be involved, and at what level, as we evaluate solutions?
- How will you measure the success of this investment of time and money?
- How does our request for a technology investment fit with other department/company requests and business cases? What’s the priority for our effort in your view?
Step 3: Develop a Framework for Evaluating Your Digital Platform Options
The actual act of evaluating your digital platform options is likely going to be the heaviest lift in this whole decision process.
If you’ve already undertaken getting to know your company’s key objectives and won support from from whoever is signing the checks, you probably have a pretty good idea of the goals you have for a digital platform. However, as anyone who’s ever gone through the less-than-ideal process of knowledge sharing in large organizations knows—document it!
The framework below will give you and others who are working on this project with you a checklist of sorts to help validate and whittle down options. These are the elements we recommend considering when it comes to reviewing each platform’s limitations, the infrastructure you’ll need to implement it, how much work you’ll need to put in before you see ROI, and so on.
Elements to Consider
Make Sure The Tech and User Experience Are Up-to-Snuff and Future-Proof
When you’re looking for a digital platform that takes the manual labor out of facilitating the flow of information through and into your business, it’s important that it’s able to integrate into the modern digital ecosystem of today and tomorrow.
Does it have APIs that are in good working order? Is it already configured in popular data integration systems like Zapier? Does it play well with not just ioS and Android but other apps and app stores (think AWS and SalesForce) that you use or might eventually use in your business?
And if it can already do one or more of these items out of the box instead of with a ton of hard work from your already overloaded IT team? Even better.
Evaluating potential shouldn’t just stop at its technical credentials. Sure, it might have 101 awesome integrations—but if using it is nearly impossible it’s time to strike it from your list.
Digital businesses know that their workers, their customers, and any third parties with which they integrate are using a variety of devices and operating systems to interact with their organization. Choosing a digital platform that makes this harder is a death certificate in an age where the consumer is king and your competitors are just a click away.
Digital platforms should deliver an experience that is delightful, accurate, and as ubiquitous as possible no matter then channel or device from which a user is accessing it. If a digital platform you’re considering delivers anything less, take a tip from your own customers and keep on shopping.
Look for Social and Business Proof From Both External and Internal Users
Are consumers tweeting its praise? Did they sell out tickets to their developers’ conference in record time? Have Facebook groups and subreddits organically sprouted up for people to share tips and praise instead of gripes and demands for refunds?
Looking at the online reputation of a tool and its vendor wasn’t a respected nor often-used practice in the days of analogue business. However, in the fourth ID, social proof is a valuable tool you can rely on to backup the company line that a vendor is sure to feed you when you’re evaluating whether their digital platform software is a contender.
But of course, we’d never recommend you pick a digital platform solely because Sean in IT liked their page on Facebook.
The platform economy is basically built upon the principle of users providing value for each other. The person or organization that facilitates this exchange—that’s you in the case—is typically rewarded with some desirable data or a percentage of the money that’s trading hands.
For example, China’s DHgate.com is a marketplace of independent wholesalers and drop shippers. As a cross border trading ecosystem; it facilitates everything from logistics to payments, internet financing, technology innovations, and language support.
Sellers get increased margins with no middlemen, a shorter business cycle, and global reach. Buyers enjoy seamless and secure bulk purchases and trustworthy customer service backed by DHgate.
Sound familiar? Many of us interact with similar digital platforms like Ebay, Facebook, and others where we trade small fees or bits of our own data in order to access items or information we want.
Build Trust By Making Sure Every User and Every Transaction is Secure
It wouldn’t be a complete discussion about digital platforms if we neglected to emphasize the importance of cybersecurity for both your organization and the customers who use your platform.
When Target was infamously breached via a third-party vendor in 2013, it was believed to have affected 110 million customers and cost $162 million as well as the price of replacing a CIO and CEO.
In 2017 Equifax failed to patch a software breach, even after they were made aware of the vulnerability, that exposed the sensitive personal information of more than half of all Americans.
But the most expensive and damaging cost for a company that experiences a cyber attack is what Deloitte dubbed the “hidden costs.”
Rippling for years after the scandal; operational disruption, loss of intellectual property, and a damaged reputation can cripple companies more than the obvious costs associated with security improvements, legal fees, and fines.
For a digital platform, authentication that each user is who they say they are and that the platform is able to hold them responsible for what they’ve promised to provide are the goals of the cyber security program.
At Dropbox Sign, we pay special attention to client security. Our suite of tools are all equipped with stringent, bank-level security and data is always stored behind firewalls and are encrypted at rest using AES 256-bit encryption. We even comply with Privacy Shield and eIDAS and are backed by AWS backup recovery.
In a world where there are plenty of digital platforms to choose from, make sure you integrate one with a good reputation and an even better backup plan so your customers have a reason to stay instead of an excuse to switch.
Step 4: Implementing Your Digital Platform(s)
Just like the previous points, even when implementing a digital platform into your workflow you should be prepared for effects that reach beyond just your IT team.
Making the most of a digital platform means supporting a cultural shift and education efforts to make sure everyone feels comfortable with how the new platform serves them and your customers.
And if you’ve made the right choice, implementing your digital platform might even mean partnering with the vendor’s team for training. After all, they are the leading expert on the power of their digital platform and how it will grow your digital transformation.
In addition to cultural and short-term training considerations, a good implementation guide includes a schedule in which milestones aren’t just dated but clearly tied back to the exact key business objectives they achieve.
Don’t shy away from setting benchmarks that manage expectations for each department and the company as a whole. But when you’re setting these remember our early recommendation to hit some of the most readily attainable and highly-visible goals early on to inspire motivation and momentum.
Actions to Take
Here are some basic considerations to think through as you create your implementation strategy:
- Identify the key stakeholders at every stage and role. Consider a RACI chart format to document who is Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, and Informed.
- Determine key milestones and dependencies for the project.
- Ensure all key players are involved in the onboarding and training efforts.
- Document the change management steps and approach to rollout for both internal employees as well as any external audiences affected.
A digital platform is a business model built upon the use of technology to facilitate exchanges—think Ebay, social media, and even your mobile banking app.
There’s no need to necessarily convert your business model into a digital platform in order to stay afloat in the fourth Industrial Revolution—but you should certainly consider incorporating one or more into your workflow take advantage of all the time they can save so your talent can focus on growing your business and remaining competitive.
Figuring out which digital platform is right for your organization is a heavy lift, especially as the options continue to expand and digital business becomes more complex.
That’s why we recommend using this guide to get a clear understanding of your company’s business objectives, secure as much support as possible from leadership, develop a framework by which to evaluate whether a digital platform is a good fit, and understand exactly what goes in to implementation.