Last week, sci-fi fans finally got to see the latest film adaptation of Dune. When published in 1965, Frank Herbert’s novel was a groundbreaking, eco-conscious sci-fi epic. Set 20,000 years in the future with intergalactic dynasties and secret orders battling for control of the scarcest resource in the universe, Dune seems both completely alien but also very familiar.
Much has been written about Herbert’s inspiration for dune. But while the author had plenty of history and his own time to draw from, the story is even more relevant today, given how dire some of the same issues have become. So if Dune does such a great job of reflecting our current situation, what insights can it offer into how to address our challenges?
Here are 5 lessons from Dune on digital transformation
1. Bring back the thinking machines
In the Dune universe, a war against machines results in a prohibition against AI or “machines in the likeness of a human mind.” Subsequently, over thousands of years, humanity has filled the role of advanced computers with Mentats. After undergoing conditioning at specialized schools, these ‘human computers’ are able to process large amounts of data, identify patterns, apply logic, and then deduce probable future outcomes. The prescience and strategic abilities of Mentats make them valued advisors, with the great houses of the universe vying for their service.
Sound familiar? With organizations across all industries racing to capitalize on AI, there’s been growing demand for data science related roles. Companies have to compete with big tech companies for talent, and there is simply not enough supply to meet the demand.
The solution? Automation. “Many machines on Ix. New machines,” notes a guild navigator (another class of humans that replace the work formerly handled by computers). Organizations can automate much of their data science work by partnering with vendors that have already made significant investments in R&D and data science talent. Leveraging outside expertise to focus on improving specific workflows is more cost-effective, provides flexibility, and can accelerate digital transformation efforts.
It’s time to bring back the thinking machines (spoiler alert: the humans and AI eventually make peace in the Dune series).
2. Every drop counts
In contrast to the Harkonnen who seem to indulge in daily steam showers, the Fremen natives of Dune are relentless in their conservation of water. Donning water-preserving suits, the Fremen even reclaim water from corpses and avoid crying. Of course, personal survival demands it, but their hyper-vigilant water preservation also serves their long term vision - terraforming their desert planet into a green oasis. The Fremen use wind traps to collect moisture from the air and slowly amass giant caches of water across thousands of sites.
Organizations rightly prioritize opportunities that promise to have the biggest impact. But they also shouldn’t overlook less obvious opportunities to innovate (for instance, optimizing the various points at which water is used within food manufacturing processes). By applying the same rigor across other processes, the many small gains in aggregate can have an enormous impact on the efficiency and sustainability of the entire business.
3. “The slow blade penetrates the shield”
Combat in Dune highlights the value of adaptation and an incremental approach. With personal shielding technology having rendered conventional projectile weapons largely ineffective, military forces in Dune revive the use of hand-to-hand combat and traditional weapons. To win in battle, soldiers have to think steps ahead and employ techniques that allow them to overcome the shields, which only yield to slow attacks.
Likewise, with the conventional, top-down approach to digital transformation often failing to deliver, organizations must adapt more effective strategies. A survey of industrial professionals indicated that while 94% have taken an organization-wide approach to digital transformation, only 29% claimed success. Stymied by unanticipated complexity and plagued with delays and cost overruns, many organizations are turning to an operation-specific approach to digital transformation. By implementing digitization and automation techniques to specific workflows first, organizations are able to ensure incremental success and then scale their efforts to the rest of the org.
4. Enlist the frontline
Another benefit of the ops-specific approach is that it more effectively involves and considers those closest to the processes being targeted. In Dune, as the management of Arrakis and spice mining changes hands from the Harkonnen to the Atreides, there’s a clear distinction in the management style of the Atreides. The Harkonnen impose their rule and maximize spice production with violent oppression. By contrast, the Atreides begin their management by sending envoys to engage the locals. They rescue spice harvester workers at the expense of spice production, and then Paul embeds himself with the Fremen and gains their desert knowledge. The approach pays off, as Paul is able to mobilize the locals to overwhelming success.
Similarly, it behooves organizations looking to transform their operations to enlist stakeholders at all levels, especially those that can assess the situation on the ground and identify all opportunities to innovate. Getting their buy-in, tapping their experience and expertise, and ensuring the project delivers on their goals will increase chances for success.
5. Fear is the mindkiller
“Moods are a thing for cattle and love play” declares 1984 Dune’s Gurney Halleck while chiding Paul Atreides for not being more vigilant in preparing for their hostile destination. Once on Arrakis, Paul finds himself stripped of his resources and stranded in the desert. He’s forced to quickly hone his skills and adapt to the conditions of his new environment.
The pace of innovation across all industries is increasing. To maintain their competitive advantage, organizations must create an environment to support innovation within. They can't afford to wait for years long, enterprise-wide digital transformation projects to deliver uncertain results. Budgetary limits, legacy systems, lack of expertise, and other challenges can be overcome with the right approach. The op-specific approach can help organizations adapt faster, empower professionals across the organization, and realize ROI sooner.
The sleeper must awaken!