What We Talk About When We Talk About Digital Transformation

Eric Neyer August 17, 2017 Tags: , , , , ,
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What’s behind the currently popular technology buzzwords, “digital transformation” and “digitization”? You’ll find these terms displayed on many technology-oriented B2B websites, from consulting firms to software vendors.

Sometimes it’s hard to figure out what these companies are offering, or what tangible benefits you’re going to receive after your “transformation”! At Digabit, we want to do a better job of communicating the details of our product offering and its value proposition.

In that spirit, let’s discuss why this thing we’re calling “digitization” is important. Why should manufacturers embrace digital transformation? And how does the idea of digitization get translated into strategy and successful business outcomes?

First, the motive for investing in digital change is simple: the longer you wait, the farther you fall behind your competition.

Do you think the companies that resisted the move from electric typewriters to word processing software for the longest gained some advantage in the marketplace? Or those who waited to switch from locally installed desktop software to a client-server model? In hindsight, it’s easy to see that these transitions were inevitable.

The Move Toward Digital Content

For customers and end users of content, digital means receiving the information you need exactly when you need it, on whatever device is at hand: smart phone, tablet, desktop, or a wearable device like a smartwatch or glasses.

Now the question is, how do you “transform” text and other valuable content from its current form into something that can be delivered to users whenever and wherever they ask for it?

Most people are aware that digital information is different from information stored within a material object like a book. But when technology vendors talk about digital, they’re not simply talking about information stored as bits on a hard drive or a DVD, either.

While people often use “digital” and “electronic” interchangeably, there are clear differences when it comes to information and content management. And the common perception of the term digital has evolved.

Digitization is about more than data formatting

CDs and DVDs store digitally formatted data, but that doesn’t make them “digital” for our purposes.

Technically speaking, digital means information stored as a series of binary digits (normally 0 and 1). However, from the perspective of a company trying to build a digital enterprise, information stored on a DVD is no more digital than the information stored on a magnetic cassette tape.

Electronic Is Not Digital

Electronic documents are fundamentally mirror images of paper documents, simply displayed on a screen. There may be basic search capability in electronic formats, as you’ve probably experienced in text documents created by word processors and text editors. However, these files are still generally stored and managed as separate, disconnected files.

Electronic information in the form of a DVD doesn’t do much more than the cassette tape that’s been around since the 1960s. It stores static information, and you can’t change that information in any meaningful way aside from erasing and replacing it with some other information.

In other words, the data stored on a DVD is certainly digital, in strictly technical terms, but it’s not digitized in the sense of being agile, portable and easily reusable.

PDFs Are Not Digital

More advanced electronic documents, like the latest PDF formats, can offer interaction in the form of user-fillable fields and other features, but they are still not digital. We can mimic some of the capabilities of digital information by searching and indexing the content of a format like PDF, but that requires another type of software to create one additional element: a database.

Digital = Database

The foundation of digital technology is the ability to store and manipulate pieces of data, and further to define (or allow an end user to define) relationships between those data objects.

When you listen to an audio CD or watch a movie on DVD, the sound and images have been converted to a digital format. Aside from that, the information they contain may as well be on a vinyl record album.

Relational vs. Flat Database Architecture

In order to take advantage of the ability to modernize business processes through better data management, modern applications employ a relational database as a core component.

The first generation of databases simply stored related pieces of information in one “flat file” or table.

Flat file databases are still used in many applications where the number of records is relatively small. If you ever use Microsoft Excel to record and sort data in a table, you are essentially creating a flat database.

But within sophisticated software systems, the world has moved on to a more powerful solution, the relational database. Relational databases store information in multiple tables, not just one. That’s what makes it possible to rapidly search millions of records, to enable complex data analysis, and to discover relationships between data entities.

A properly designed business application database can contain hundreds or even thousands of data tables.

Relational database tables vs. flat database

Relational databases let users manipulate and analyze thousands of object properties.

Luckily, you don’t have to understand or remember any of this in order to take advantage of Documoto’s relational database and its ability to search for parts, create associations between machines and all their parts, and suggest purchases in buyers’ shopping carts.

Documoto takes the hard work out of building a hierarchy of digital data that is explicitly designed to organize parts and assemblies. Neither the authors who create parts catalogs or end users see databases or the raw data they contain. The program’s interface prompts catalog creators to upload files and parts data, add tags, and enter additional information, and the application builds the parts information database in the background.

Now you know the magic behind digital data processing within a relational database, but we still haven’t defined digital transformation and how it can impact business processes throughout an organization.

Benefits of a Digital Business Model

We’ve briefly discussed using a database as the foundation to create modern parts catalog in the context of the Documoto platform. However, this is just one potential application that could be part of a larger digital business strategy.

Digitize information to optimize processes and reduce data entry

Data entry…ugh.

When you have parts data stored in a non-proprietary format in a database, you have the flexibility to use that data in any number of ways. You can synchronize and exchange data with other application databases, such as enterprise resource planning (ERP) software.

One major goal of digitization is to automate manual processes like data entry. Entering information about a parts order should generally require very little decision making, so there’s no reason to use valuable human labor for that chore.

With software applications like Documoto and ERP systems, there’s no need. You can store pricing information, product inventory and other data in the ERP’s database, while managing part numbers, descriptions, and assembly drawings in Documoto.

When it’s time to display a parts catalog to an end user, data is pulled from whichever database has the relevant information.

Digital Workflows Optimize Business Processes

Setting up relationships between two (or more) applications requires some technical savvy, but integrations like this are the backbone of many digital transformation strategies. This allows you to store and manage one set of data, but let that data flow and be re-used wherever it’s needed to optimize business processes.

So, your aftermarket sales reps see the same parts data in a shopping cart as your service team sees in the parts books. Dealers, distributors and equipment owners can be shown different prices, pulled from the ERP where price lists are stored. There’s no need to create three sets of price documents, because the application knows to show the right information to the right user.

The information is dynamic, meaning application interfaces get information from the appropriate databases in real time and display live data. Not last week’s or last year’s data, like you might find in a simple PDF or a printed catalog.

This article only scratches the surface of the opportunities open to companies that want to maximize operational efficiency by improving the use of data and building digital workflows.

If you’re wondering whether your aftermarket operations can benefit from implementing a relational database system to manage parts information, publish accurate digital part catalogs, and empower online part sales, contact the Digabit sales team today!

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