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Book Review: Designed for Digital

By February 8, 2022Articles

By Paul Sheldon

In 2006, Jeanne Ross, Peter Weill and David Robertson wrote a book titled “Enterprise Architecture as Strategy”, in which they distilled their research of several organisations attempting to implement enterprise architecture into four operating models. Recognising that one-size doesn’t fit all, Ross et al defined these basic operating models and showed how enterprise architecture can be used across each to create an IT “foundation for execution”. Using examples from highly successful companies such as Dell, Walmart and 7-Eleven Japan, the authors presented a well thought out and researched strategy, aimed at C-level executives and those wishing to understand the how to properly execute enterprise architecture in their type of business.

In 2019, Jeanne Ross and two new authors: Cynthia Beath and Martin Mocker followed with a new book: “Designed for Digital”. In this book the authors have tackled the problem of how to digitalise, as opposed to digitise, a business. Digitalising a business is about creating value propositions for customers in the online digital world of today, not simply using information technology to streamline a business, something companies have been doing, or at least attempting, since the 90s.

“We define digital business design as the holistic organizational configuration of people (roles, accountabilities, structures, skills), processes (workflows, routines, procedures), and technology (infrastructure, applications) to define value propositions and deliver offerings made possible by the capabilities of digital technologies.”

“Digital business design is a responsibility of senior executives in a company. It is how leaders ensure the company can execute its business strategy in a digital economy.”

Designed for Digital, p5.

SMACIT (social, mobile, analytics, cloud, Internet of Things) and other digital technologies are forever changing the business landscape, and companies that fail to utilise these new technologies are in danger of being left behind in an increasingly digital world.

The authors, however, do warn that attempting to build such digital customer value propositions without having first created an IT foundation for execution is fraught with danger and likely to fail. In the digital world, the authors suggest that operational excellence, delivered by this foundation for execution, is simply table stakes, to use a poker parlance. You need this before you take a seat at the table and start strategising about creating digital value propositions.

So, what are the digital value propositions a company should strive to develop? Well, that depends. Chapter 2, “Building Shared Customer Insights”, suggests that a company’s digital offerings can be found in the intersection between their customer’s desires and their digitally inspired solutions. What this is really saying is that a company needs to begin developing digital solutions and capture insights into which of these are a hit with customers. Determining everything your customers want before you’ve delivered anything is difficult at best and building a suite of digital offerings before asking if that is what your customer wants is a hit and miss affair, likely to waste a lot of time and resources. The solution is to do both, and do them continuously.

Chapter 3, “Building an Operational Backbone”, is a summary of their earlier book “Enterprise Architecture as Strategy”, albeit updated for the digital economy. It reiterates the need for a foundation for execution and provides an excellent example in LEGO Corporation, of how enterprise architecture can turn a business around, even one as large as LEGO, when done right.

Chapter 4, “Building a Digital Platform”, is where the real core of this book begins. It lays out how to build the digital platform that will allow digital value propositions to be developed for customers.

“A digital platform is a repository of business, data, and infrastructure components used to rapidly configure digital offerings. What’s so special about a digital platform? Reusable digital components.”

Designed for Digital, p59.

A repository of reusable digital components, the authors state, is the key to the development of digital offerings. These components are grouped as data, infrastructure and technology components, with the key being the data components that will collect and manipulate all types of data rapidly and efficiently to facilitate digital customer offerings. Hosting these component repositories are cloud services, whether public cloud (Microsoft Azure, Amazon AWS, Google GCP etc), private cloud, or a hybrid.

Subsequent chapters build on this foundation of an operational backbone and a digital platform.

Chapter 5, “Building an Accountability Framework”, discusses how to empower staff to be innovative and imaginative when designing and building digital components, while working together towards common business goals.

“The goal of empowering people while coordinating their individual efforts is why companies need an accountability framework. Your digital platform is the technology base for digital success. Your accountability framework defines roles and processes for building and using the digital platform.”

Designed for Digital, p78.

This chapter provides an excellent case study on balancing autonomy and alignment to business goals in the music streaming company Spotify.

In chapter 6, “Building an External Developer Platform”, the book discusses building an external developer platform to extend the digital platform and make it available to third parties. This can be either a platform to:

“allow partners to use the company’s internally developed components in the partner’s offerings” or to “provide an industry platform by creating a market for related digital offerings”.

Designed for Digital, p103.

Application programming interfaces (APIs) and API management tools have been around for some time, but here the authors explain the how and why of using this technology to build on a digital platform and extend a company’s digital value proposition. Several examples from DBS Bank, Uber, Royal Philips and Schneider Electric drive home the advantages of building an external developer platform as part of a digital strategy.

At this point the authors have defined the five required building blocks for a digital platform (shared insights, operational backbone, digital platform, accountability framework and external developer platform), but how do we get there? Chapter 7, “Developing a Roadmap for Your Digital Transformation”, addresses this question.

“In a perfect world, companies would be able to develop their building blocks simultaneously… We have observed, however, that large companies cannot simultaneously address all the building blocks when they kick off a digital transformation.”

Designed for Digital, p121.

The authors’ research suggests there is no one single roadmap that will suit all companies. Instead, a number of case studies are presented showing different types of businesses on different points in their digital journey. Each of the five building blocks are discussed for each case study, showing when and how they were developed as part of the overall strategy, and what effect that had on the end result.

The final chapter, “Designing Your Company for Digital”, summarises the overall message of the book:

“to succeed in the digital economy, you need to be inspired by these capabilities”

Designed for Digital, p143.

 This is not about being caught up in the hype around the latest digital trends such as blockchain or NFTs, but rather embracing digital technologies as part of a well thought out strategy to build a digital platform on top of an efficient operational backbone. The message is to learn:

“how to (a) build new infrastructure, data and business components, (b) test and learn what its customers value, and (c) enable individuals to deliver on those capabilities while aligning their individual efforts”

Designed for Digital, p144.

The final few pages of this chapter provide a handy to do list to get readers started on their digital transformation journey.


At around 150 pages (excluding appendices and notes), Designed for Digital is by no means a large book, however it would be a mistake to think it lightweight or superficial. On the contrary, the authors have written a concise, well thought out approach to building a digital platform on top of a well designed and implemented operational backbone. Each chapter builds on the one before, providing all the tools necessary to navigate the journey that is a digital transformation. Examples and case studies are provided where they enhance and clarify the understanding of a particular topic, or where they are used to show that no one single approach exists for all companies, and thus highlight different ways of achieving the same goals.

Designed for Digital is an excellent resource for C-level executives wanting to take their companies digital, but also provides a much better understanding of the how and why of digital transformation for staff at any level of an organisation. While it is not necessary to have previously read Enterprise Architecture as Strategy to fully understand this book (it is summarised somewhat in chapter 3) I recommend you do so as it is just as relevant today as it was when first published in 2006.

Ross, Jeanne W, Beath, Cynthia M & Mocker, Martin (2019). Designed for Digital. The MIT Press

Ross, Jeanne W, Weill, Peter & Robertson, David C (2006). Enterprise Architecture as Strategy. Harvard Business Press.

About the Author

Paul Sheldon is a Cloud Solutions Architect with over 30 years experience in the IT industry. Paul has worked at all levels of software development from developer through to solutions architect in a number of industries including mining, healthcare and telecommunications. Paul is a certified Microsoft Azure Solutions Architect Expert and is TOGAF® Certified. 

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