The Right Approach to Digital Transformation
Digital Transformation Without Wasting Precious Resources
In case you were living in complete media isolation over the last few months, you might be better of going back there for at least a few more. For the rest of us, it is clear that the need for digital tools is now greater than ever due to the coronavirus, and its social and economical consequences.
In the office, we have so many ways to interact with each other. Working from home requires a completely different way of collaboration, including digital ethics and protocols, perhaps more familiar to Software Developers than to most of the other professions.
How do we embrace the new digital norm and make the most of it? Not an easy task at all, but there are three ways we believe you can accelerate progress:
(1) creating standards and leveraging collective intelligence,
(2) accelerating decision making, and
(3) embracing the best digital practices.
In the XIII century Kievan Rus, local leaders preferred to compete and fight each other instead of working together. Then came Mongols, who were already united under Ghenghis Khan, used standardized tools, weapons, and military practices. They learned how to extract cooperative gains. Mongols prospered ruling Rus for the next two centuries.
Competition is at the core of capital and creating wealth. Global 2000 companies compete for talent, markets, natural resources, innovation, and create security locks on every door to avoid data leakages. Sometimes, however, we have to cooperate, not compete, for the greater good (and even for profit). Humanity is now facing unprecedented challenges: Climate Change, Environmental Crises, and Pandemics for starters. These must be solved through cooperation, not competition. After all, it doesn’t really matter that you have outdone competition when the whole world is in crisis.
There are successful initiatives in facilitating cross-company data-sharing platforms, like the Open Group in Oil and Gas subsurface exploration . Subsurface exploration is a very complex and expensive undergoing producing data of enormous value guarded very carefully. With this unified data platform, the group can accelerate the deployment of digital solutions, reduce the implementation and lifecycle costs, and promote best business practices to address the business and technical issues. Cooperative gains are invaluable in dealing with extremely complex problems. We need more initiatives like this, especially in the materials and chemicals sector, where extremely complex problems are the norm. In fact, in this sector, the same mistakes are made over and over again because the collective intelligence is isolated.
Sharing data, even only the “junk” data from models that failed to identify outliers, will improve the efficiency of R&D and remove unnecessary repetition and wasted resources. Recent funding programs from cloud providers for COVID-19  definitely deserve an honorable mention but are likely to be flawed with wasted resources, since transparent data-sharing platforms aren’t in place. When seeking a vaccine, many research groups are likely to be independently screening the same exact molecular libraries while burning zillions of core hours and years of human lives. Cooperation and data sharing will invariably get us to vaccines faster.
We are now in the era of data-centric research and development. Data is the new oil, and just like oil, data has to be refined. In order to extract insights from data, we must (1) clean it, (2) organize it in a database, (3) make the latter accessible to researchers, and (4) train artificial intelligence to extract insights. For materials science and chemistry, (1) and (2) are especially problematic because of the complexity and diversity of the R&D field.
In addition to the complexity of the science itself, we have to contend with the fragmentation and disorganized state of data sources. This is especially evident in large organizations such as enterprise and governmental laboratories with thousands of researchers producing non-structured data managed by dozens of departmental units, managers, IT systems, file formats, security protocols, personal egos. For decades they were asked to produce mission-specific results — i.e., insights about new materials — as fast as possible, to fit the tight timelines and grant proposals. Do you think they ever invested time in organizing their data?
There has to be a centralized effort aimed at the standardization of digital practices across large enterprises and governmental organizations. Using the data <> oil analogy again, there has to be a department responsible for standardizing the oil grade (data schema) and transportation routes (access to data). The Materials Genome Initiative  of the US government is one such example. We need more and sooner versus later.
The US government’s response to COVID-19 surfaced multiple problems, including the outdated system for research funding. The Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) ecosystem, for example, has been around for over two decades. It must evolve to stay up-to-date to truly support scalable startup businesses willing to be agile, grow quickly, and facilitate the response to the likes of COVID-19, instead of largely sponsoring the same slow-growing “near-circle” companies. The Open Topics initiative from the Department of Defense  is an important critical step toward innovating the ecosystem. Embracing the Customer Discovery phase within government agencies as a way to innovate is uniquely important. So is the rapid decision-making process. After all, that’s how successful businesses are built — by finding market opportunities and rapidly exploring them.
Jira is a wonderful piece of software. So are GitHub, Confluence, Jenkins, Jupyter, WebStorm, et alia. All these help Software Engineers do their job. And their job is writing. Writing code, but first — writing. Documenting the ideas, documenting their thoughts, documenting the problems and solutions, tracing the history, and version-controlling to be able to revert to a prior state. A good Software Engineer is a maniac in a good sense of this word. They are able to type quickly, produce clear documentation, and clean and well-formatted code with concise and understandable commits.
Welcome to the world of Digital Collaboration, where everyone now has to document what they are doing in a similar way to how Software Developers do it. When you work with people sitting across the room from you and can always ask a question — it is easy to be lazy about documenting your work. When colleagues are on the other side of the globe, there is no other way, but to use Jira, Asana, or some other project management software, plan your work carefully and document the results for your colleagues to see and review.
Good Software Engineers are also often socially distanced from other engineers and from the rest of the world. That’s why the tools and concepts built and tested for software development can work well in the Post-COVID era of essential digital collaboration.
Before COVID-19 we could afford to be “sloppy” and inefficient. If we want to survive when COVID-XX hits the globe in the future, we must change how we operate. This means embracing collaboration, cooperative gains, rapid decision-making, and digital hygiene.
We’re looking forward to industry adaptation and resilience. Cooperation may be a different mindset for corporations, but when humanity thrives it’s a win-win. Collective intelligence will make a meaningful difference.
Team Exabyte.io: Marta Bulaich, Timur Bazhirov.
 “The Open Group”, Subsurface exploration initiative: https://www.opengroup.org/osdu/forum-homepage
 “Tech against COVID”, Microsoft, Google Clouds team up to provide cloud computing to researchers: https://techagainstcovid.com/
 “Materials Genome Initiative”, National Institute of Standards, web page: https://www.nist.gov/mgi
 DoD SBIR Open Topics: https://www.afwerx.af.mil/sbir.html
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