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Is Digital Transformation Killing Faster Innovation Cycles?

“Digital transformation” – wow, just the sound of these two words screams innovation, future and high-tech. As per definition the term describes the shift of business activities, processes, competencies and models to fully leverage the changes and opportunities of digital technologies and their impact across society.

The influence of digital transformation on a vast variety of aspects of our (professional) lives and the high impact on the way we execute business is creating opportunities. However the trend is also raising concerns, especially one in particular that I want to assess in the following.

To explain my thoughts let’s focus on the electronics industry. In this area digital transformation is strategic for companies and a critical part of business processes contributing to competitiveness. Another key criteria for success is innovation – innovation that suffers due to digital transformation.

If you learned electronic circuit design from scratch two or more decades ago you will remember the endless book shelves boosting hundreds of books with data sheets and reference designs. Would we ever have completed a design without those books at that time? I guess not; at least not in time.

Remember this? It’s called a library, it has been a place frequently visited by people in the last century to meet and read books.

Nowadays you won’t find a lot of paper on a shelf – it’s all available online anyway. Search engines are getting better and better and make finding exactly what we are looking for as easy as pie.

The capabilities go even beyond finding things and actively improve your search terms and suggest additional information. Looking for an operational amplifier? You’ll probably find it along with the best fitting range of ADCs. Amazing!

If finding components isn’t enough there is a huge offering of online chats with “experts”. However how good are those representatives (or chat bots!?) trained to really assist me when developing something new? Am I speaking to an actual professional or just an amateur? Or am I really texting with a computer?

Don’t get me wrong, I do like robots – it’s just for conversations I prefer human beings.

The problem is, even if I receive good answers to my questions I don’t get encouraged to be innovative. With all the fancy digital interaction the real source of innovation is left out: The human.

The truth is, most young engineers want to show the world what’s possible and invent something groundbreaking (at least I did when I was young). However, when I was required to design a circuit all by myself right after finishing university I was pretty frustrated and close to quit. But I was lucky. An experienced colleague was sitting right next to me (no coincidence as I learned later) and was able to help me quickly.

No, he couldn’t tell me what to do or how to solve the challenges I was facing but he was asking the right questions. Questions which I was able to answer step by step until the puzzle of answers enabled me to solve my issues.

That’s something that digital transformation, search engines and design tools can’t compete with. They are only able to answer questions or in the best case to deliver additional information but they can’t inspire you to think beyond the ordinary and to go a new way. Computers just can’t fuel innovation. They can only show you what’s already there and what the common way to solve a problem is.

Over the years questions from and conversations with colleagues have taught me to challenge myself and to look beyond the common answers and reference designs. This way of creative thinking helps us to solve problems more efficiently and to improve things. That is innovative thinking.

To put it in a nutshell, search engines are able to help us to find solutions and answers but they are not able to encourage us to ask questions that have no answers nor are they able to challenge our work. That’s dangerous for innovation.

And while I am painting a dark picture here the above should not create the impression that I’m not a big fan of high-tech and digital transformation. Quite the opposite: Digital transformation is a necessary, exciting and positive trend which can enable a new level of innovation. However, with all the easy ways to search for answers we should not forget the power of asking the right and sometimes inconvenient questions.

At EBV we always strive to fuel conversations with the right questions and to help developers to find the most innovative solution possible. Thus if you’re stuck with your ideas maybe it’s time to pick up the phone and have a conversation with an engineer here at EBV?