Signs of the times

Sept. 23, 2019

Is this what it feels like in the ‘Trough of Disillusionment’?

The first indications of trouble appeared early this spring in our annual survey of reader attitudes toward digital transformation.

Smart Industry's Keith Larson

An unprecedented number of respondents confirmed that digital technologies were having a critical impact on their businesses, yet there were signs of reticence: More readers’ organizations had moved out of the starting gate, but the number actively investing in application deployments had regressed in favor of pilot-scale efforts. Meanwhile, even as a record percentage indicated they had a formal digital strategy in place, the majority had shifted from a longer-term vision to focus instead on the next 18 months. “Immaturity of standards” was cited by far more readers as a major obstacle, indicating that all those easy-peasy integration efforts hadn’t gone quite as smoothly as promised.  

But the biggest warning sign came when we asked how their digital transformation efforts had gone thus far. The answer was a decided “meh,” with the majority of respondents (7 out of 8) evenly split between “somewhat successful” and “problematic but ongoing.”

Hardly the level of enthusiasm one might expect of industrial revolutionists.

But we’ve clearly been here before. So often so that the research analysts at Gartner long ago identified this “Trough of Disillusionment” as part of its trademarked Hype Cycle, which deftly describes the adoption ups and downs of many new technologies. Excitement builds in response to an initial Innovation Trigger to a Peak of Inflated Expectations. Then, when things don’t go quite as smoothly as promised, comes the tumble into the Trough of Disillusionment. Next up is climbing the Slope of Enlightenment to the Plateau of Productivity. 

Of course, nothing’s ever quite that simple, and digital transformation consists not of one technology but a range of them in various stages of development and adoption. But it’s clear that many industrial practitioners are feeling a bit oversold—if not on the need to transform, then on the ease with which they can transform not only their technology infrastructure but their people and processes. “Pilot purgatory,” it turns out, is a very real place. 

Here at Smart Industry we’re in throes of planning our fifth annual conference, and our goal this time out is to equip attendees with a step-by-step action plan to jumpstart their organization’s digital transformation efforts. Inspired by the marshalling point where mountain-climbers gather before pushing on to the summit, we’re calling our gathering Base Camp. This nuts-and-bolts conference will kick off with guided self-assessments to gauge the digital maturity of one’s organization, then help to identify specific opportunities that will provide quick and scaleable ROI. Finally, we’ll share best practices for effectively aligning the people, processes and technologies to effect organizational change. 

Smart Industry Base Camp will be held in Chicago from March 30 through April 1, 2020. Registration is set to open October 1st—visit for further details. We hope to see you there!

Keith Larson is Smart Industry editor in chief.