An unexpected thing happened along Aurora Health Care's journey to becoming a more digital business.
Aurora, a 15-hospital healthcare provider in Wisconsin, is trying like many providers to use the Web to get closer to customers. One example is that it has started letting patients see their doctors' calendars and book appointments themselves online.
Opening up the calendar came with some worries inside Aurora. Physicians fretted about giving up control of their schedules. Finance worried about letting first-time patients make appointments without first proving insurance. It took about two years to work through those issues. But obstacles like those and the fact that Aurora overcame them haven't been the big surprise.
The surprise came from the data. A physician's office typically has a 10% no-show rate for patient appointments. With appointments booked online, that percentage dropped to 2%. "We think it's because you see all the options, and you pick what works best for you," says Aurora CIO Philip Loftus. Plus, if something comes up, people can cancel their appointments online as easily as they booked them.
Patient satisfaction also goes up at practices that offer online access to appointments, lab results and other information, Loftus says, and patients are less likely to leave for a new practice. Those trends hold true even for longtime patients of a doctor whose practice adds these tools. "We can see a real stickiness with these applications," Loftus says.
Aurora didn't know it would get such a sharp drop in patient no-shows, and the ROI of its online calendar didn't rest comfortably on that productivity gain. Aurora's online push was mostly a leap of faith that these types of digital ties are what customers will want and demand.
In our coverage, we've chronicled how this digital business trend is hurling IT organizations into a much more customer-centric role. Smartphones and tablets in particular are turning more IT shops into developers of products and apps that customers use directly. Digital business also is fueled by the central role of data analytics in letting companies see and anticipate customer tastes more quickly.
Digital business forces IT leaders and their teams to be perpetually humble. Humility's not the first (or 10,000th) word that springs to mind when describing digital innovators such as Apple or Google. Agility and creativity are traits that leaders would rather focus on.
But the reality is that companies will, repeatedly, miss the latest digital innovations. Think of any blockbuster digital innovation of the past few years, and you can quickly run down a list of incredibly smart companies that slept through the revolution.
My favorite current example is cloud infrastructure, also known as infrastructure-as-a-service. It took Amazon, an online retailer, to pioneer the concept of renting the most basic computing power online by the hour. Other likely candidates -- Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Microsoft, Oracle -- saw the same landscape and shot past the opportunity. Why trifle in such a commodity business? No reason, except that the most basic IT service is all many customers want. The titans have since scrambled to launch simpler cloud infrastructure services through new offerings or pricey acquisitions, such as IBM's $2 billion deal for SoftLayer, announced this month.
One reason they're late to the game is that the inertia of big businesses resists the changes that digital business requires. In a recent guest column on InformationWeek.com, Maddock Douglas innovation consultant Doug Stone sums up the fundamental reason that innovation fails as a tension between the past and future. Big companies judge opportunities based on past successes and whether a new initiative risks that stability. Startups focus so much on future opportunity that they fail to build a sustainable business model. Great innovators must blend the two viewpoints.
At InformationWeek, we're making this idea of digital business the theme of our InformationWeek 500 Conference and awards gala, which will be held Sept. 10 in San Francisco at the Four Seasons hotel. We're trying something new this year: It will be a half-day event instead of multiday, but it will be packed with the same kinds of CIO-level presentations and discussions that have highlighted past IW 500 conferences. The focus on Sept. 10 will be on customer-facing technology and how digital business changes customer expectations. Please save the date. More info to come.