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Digital and Physical Worlds Are Colliding: Here’s How to Ride Out the Waves

The extraordinary rise of cryptocurrency, AI-enabled systems, and augmented reality has pushed the modern consumer deeper into the digital world than ever before. Stay-at-home orders and remote work environments have further encouraged the adoption of new technology, such that physical reality has become entrenched in the digital space.

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Yet, as Groucho Marx famously quipped, “I’m not crazy about reality. But it’s still the only place to get a decent meal.” Today’s workforce is still very much a product of the tangible realm, so leaders have been faced with how to smoothly integrate the digital with the physical. Successfully doing so means leveraging data as the critical bridge between these two worlds. It also means reframing your team’s mindset to fully embrace change—and a few calculated risks.

Invest in a Better Data Life Preserver

Over the past decade, “data” has become a buzzword as more and more companies look to keep pace with our rapidly changing world. This is becoming easier to do as we digitize processes and quickly accrue even more data. Almost everyone now has access to a wide array of useful information that can be leveraged to drive further data collection. 

The best kind of data accurately reflects the physical world and allows us to create models in the digital world. Models informed by reality—then consistently fed updated information—can help predict the previously unpredictable. An example from personal experience at a multinational oil company with billions in revenue comes to mind. Massive ships are routinely used to transport liquified gas to far away customers. Although they appear formidable, the safe berthing of these ships is crucial.

An opportunity to improve the accuracy of the weather model was identified, which would allow ships to berth in conditions previously identified as unsafe. Members of the IT department worked with the marine department to deploy new sensors that could collect new data, feed AI-driven weather models, and produce more accurate forecasts. This improved forecasting model made it possible for ships to berth when they previously couldn’t have.

It’s easy to get caught up in the rush for shiny new gadgets. While updating technology is important, leaders first need to ask themselves how upgrades will cut costs, make life easier or safer, and improve business performance. Investing in the right technology can fuel better data points and become critical to developing business plans in the physical world. Your decisions are only as good as the data that inform them.

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Make Sure the Captain Knows Their Ship

The weather forecasting example shows the ability of high-quality data to inform real-world business strategies, but it also offers valuable lessons on leadership. It is already widely acknowledged that those who embrace digital sooner rather than later will have a competitive advantage—once you’re late to the game, it’s hard to catch up. But many have not yet recognized that you can’t disentangle the future of leadership from the future of digital. 

Achieving full digital integration means nothing if those at the helm aren’t fluent in their company’s capabilities. Company leaders need to know what is possible in order to drive change forward. Consider this analogy: you can drive a car without knowing how its engine works as long as you’re familiar with the steering and speed mechanisms. Not everyone has to be a technologist, but a broad understanding of the equipment is crucial for getting the most out of your team.

Don’t Let Company Culture Rock Your Boat

Implementing changes—technological or otherwise—is impossible to do without support from a large portion of your company. There is strength in numbers for good reason. If some team members aren’t on board, it will be difficult to create a real and lasting impact. Company culture can sometimes be to blame for this. Leaders need to engage both hearts and minds behind a common goal, then reward employees for actively taking steps toward achieving it. An organization that promotes collaboration and collective growth will be able to integrate the digital with the physical far more easily than a company plagued by poor teamwork and individual agendas.

It is also important to celebrate experimentation and “giving it a go.” Leaders are responsible for encouraging people to take calculated risks, even when the outcomes aren’t guaranteed. Basing everything on ROI makes for a risk-averse organization held back by its own fears. The best way to do so is by setting realistic expectations and taking a few leaps of faith. 

To effectively foster a broad-based culture of innovation in which hearts and minds are invested in tech transformation, leaders need to avoid focusing on headcount reduction as a primary, immediate objective. Putting too much emphasis on the bottom line can stymie buy-in and frontline-driven innovation. After all, who wants to participate in innovation if it will eventually eliminate their job or contribute to downsizing.

Is Your Data Ready to Fulfill the Promise of AI?

The pandemic has shown us what is possible in terms of smoothly transitioning between the digital and physical worlds. Companies whose leaders embrace change, get to know their team’s technological capabilities, encourage experimentation, and invest in high-quality data will take advantage of the energy released from the collision of our physical and digital worlds.

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