by Lio Grealou, senior advisor to QR_ and founder of Xlifecycle Ltd
Digitalization is typically defined in context of business transformation, automation, and operational improvement: it contributes to bringing together data, people, process, tools, and technologies towards efficient and effective decision-making. Beyond the marketing jargon, digital continuity is a commonly aspired-for goal across businesses, with digitalization as the mean to the end.
Building and managing a business implies managing data, people, defining and improving processes, implementing tools and technologies to achieve it. Over time, it is about managing more and more data, more complex information flows, newer technologies, more automation, more cross-functional interactions, wider skills, etc., altogether across bigger teams, more people, and more advanced enterprise solutions. Both established and start-up businesses go through cycles to define and implement such roadmaps as they grow and evolve.
Driving greater data continuity is what "data plumbing" is about: building pipes to bring data together to the relevant systems and people. It is not only about tools; data also flows through manual processes run by people, managed via governance. This is about creating a shared understanding that everyone can align on, using simple means to convey messages and help people communicate (and align to a shared vision). Digital and data plumbers coexist with other operational and technical trades in transforming the business.
In this article, I elaborate on multiple discussion points that I had with Rob Ferrone over the years regarding what data and digital plumbing mean for Quick Release_ and its clients, and how it contributes to positively driving businesses forward, in a pragmatic way.
Rob is one of the two Quick Release_ co-founders, the "product data management professionals", as it says on the tin. He has been with the company since its inception over 20 years ago. Rob often introduces himself and his fellow Quick Release_ consultants as "digital plumbers", and this caught my attention as digital solutions often go far beyond the IT systems themselves (i.e., the digital tools and platforms).
What is digital plumbing?
In other words, is it a synonym of data continuity, with a strong focus on hands-on operational delivery?
According to Rob, "digital plumbing is fundamentally: 1) a way to communicate, get people on the same page quickly, and 2) a way to describe what we do (everything from providing advice to getting our hands dirty to support our clients with their daily lives)."
The digital plumbing analogy contributes to defining the product data management (PDM) professional, which can be difficult to explain as it does not exist as a profession or cross-functional capability. Also, the PDM acronym has been used and abused over time—an acronym which can be wrongly misinterpreted. On the contrary, everyone can positively picture what a digital plumber might do: it is about stitching things together, getting things done, fixing problems, and driving change in the product development and innovation space.
Is it about digital or data plumbing, or both?
Both. The plumbing of data through either manual activities or using digital apps, tools and interfaces is what this is about:
- Connecting people and teams through a single version of data, driving product quality, and enterprise excellence.
- Ensuring data and product quality are closely interlinked to try to anticipate and predicts issues, fixing them as early as possible.
- Leveraging data to manage operations, feeding into the associated decision-making process and governance.
- Deriving data into information and business insights, understanding behaviours, and driving change from better data authoring and consuming.
For simplification, digital plumbing and data plumbing can probably be used interchangeably; nevertheless, data is clearly the driving force towards performance delivery and competitive advantage, whereas digitalisation is an enabler to both effective collaboration, delivery speed and accuracy.
How is this analogy perceived by your clients?
"Customers get it straight away." Rob expands on this by mentioning that "they laugh at the blocked / leaking / broken plumbing visual [a famous Quick Release_ slide] and admit that it is how they see the state of their business."
Digital plumbing is clearly one side of the dice in terms of data management and data governance. An organization can have great digital plumbing but often the question remains: how clean or dirty is the data being pumped through the pipes? Digital plumbers need to work holistically with users and the overall business to understand and help meet the product and data quality requirements.
Additionally, as Rob put it: "water for the garden could be rainwater but drinking water must meet high standards. Do you have self-regulation in place, maintenance, or other checks, or all those things?" It is therefore a matter of defining and optimizing ways of working and data standards required to drive effective governance or manage cost implications.
What do digital plumbers bring?
What characterises the core skills and USP of the "data plumbers", let's say compared to more traditional business transformation consultants?
The digital plumbers need to have lived the work, to understand the difference between theory and reality, but also to be capable of owning the embedding of a change. Classic consultants have rarely used the processes or tools to deliver a customer’s product from start to finish. Also importantly, it is the knowledge of the physical world part development process and the associated business processes, how they run in parallel and where they go wrong.
Rob highlights that "most of our team have been on the factory floor and work closely with the engineers, suppliers, or assembly teams so they understand the day-to-day requirements around how information is created and consumed which enables them to better design the digital plumbing. Finally, our people need to be technically minded data geeks but with exceptional people skills."
Communication is indeed half the battle. Most of the time, data plumbers help interfacing (and translating) between IT departments which are in the technical solution details and business management teams which prefer to stay high-level and are more hands-on. People often don’t speak the same language across functions or have a different understanding of the same thing.
Digital plumbers bring together a solid understanding of the product, but also programme management appreciation with the combined expertise around IT engagement, product development processes, supplier engagement, and how information is flowing across functions to foster collaboration.
What do digital plumbers do and how they collaborate?
Expanding on the house building analogy, how do digital plumbers engage with their clients to ensure business continuity while concurrently improving data alignment?
Digital plumbers might have visibility of holistic issues in the house and collaborate with other trades when identifying and fixing issues (from quick fixes to crisis management), improving operational efficiency and driving continuous improvement, linking long-term strategy perspective with day-to-day operations.
If Quick Release_ does the "plumbing" in the house, who does the overall design architecture, and the other trades: the masonry, the carpentry, the kitchen and bathroom fitting, the central heating upgrade, etc. and how do digital plumbers consultants fits when interfacing with other domains? Sometimes it is difficult to say where the plumbing stops (is it the tap, the bath, the rubber duck?), however anyone who has seen a house being built will know how well tradespeople can work together.
Rob expands on this by explaining that "the key is the shared vision about the outcome and then how to make that complimentary not just in terms of solution execution but also the sequence of events."
Furthermore, "it is hard to put plumbing into the wall after it has been tiled. I would say that the rarest beast in industry is the business architect / project manager who understands all the things that need to come together, and who can articulate that both to the homeowner and the tradespeople. If there is someone in this role it makes our lives so much easier, however when they are not there or even worse when there are a dozen of them with competing visions it becomes a full-time job to project manage the client as well as the work itself."
Cross-functional collaboration is about bridging silos, providing various levels of data visibility to the end-users, understanding solution options, making trade-offs, driving, and fixing issues. Digital plumbers are more hands-on than typical management consultants. This goes beyond the ability to create a plan or blueprint; it is about the ability to deliver the solution—understanding the details to make it happen.
How do digital plumbers become trusted advisors?
The analogy carries on, as Rob explains that there are three approaches to building capability:
- "The first is an MVP approach to giving the customer what they need at the right time, perhaps when they are thirsty it is a bottle of water rather than a glass of water from the tap. We go with them on the journey and put just enough in place at each phase, with the intent of getting it all functioning before backfilling with a more permanent solution. We call it leaving a trail of construction."
- "The second approach is to apply supplementary support to a given event, to deliver something project enhancing (e.g. increased water flow) which pays for itself through the enhancement but then becomes a permanent feature to be re-used. Those tactical interventions become strategic when coordinated from a strategic position."
- "Finally, we can zoom out and measure what is going on in the house and create a pareto of the biggest blockages/leaks then tackle them in an organized business case approach, where there is clear value assigned to fixing the problems. During interventions we have a suite of tools and skills which enables the clients to continue to operate with little or no disruption."
People can perform smart manual work to ensure business continuity or to get the work started through prototyping, experimenting with new ideas (design thinking approach), converging towards long-term solution elements, bringing the required agility and a "Quite Refreshing" approach to implementing business change roadmaps.
What are your thoughts?