This Babylonian tablet is from the dawn of literacy, but 3750 years later we still trade mainly in an analogue world.

A few months ago I wrote a story of the 100-year old invoice that I found behind the cabinet of my kitchen. But in the history of commerce a hundred years is not that long, I recently came across the following tablet at the British Museum.

Babylonian_tablet.jpg

If you are complaining that you can’t see the text in this picture, here is a good transcript. Now for those of you who gave up Babylonian cuneiform in Middle School I can reveal that the tablet is summarised by the museum as

Clay tablet; letter from Nanni to Ea-nasir complaining that the wrong grade of copper ore has been delivered after a gulf voyage and about a delay of a further delivery. 1750 BC


A strikingly modern issue regarding international trade, product quality issue and scheduled delivery delays. It has spawned some interesting blogs about customer service and the way that some problems of commerce haven’t really changed, as the full translation makes clear.

Literacy brought tremendous benefits to the Babylonians, although this was generally only to a very small sector of the population. It brought in the opportunity to trade with far away places: this tablet identifies a place possibly near Bahrain, a long way from Babylon. The tablet also keeps track of the accounts between the two traders, prices, quality and delivery schedules. In modern parlance we would call these shipping schedules, advanced delivery notes and invoices. In fact literacy becomes the definition of “history”: everything before is “pre-history”

Going Digital will transform our trading networks in the same way.

Writing has advanced some way since Nanni and Ea-Nasir got their scribes to make marks on wet clay, but the process is still essentially analogue. Although we have been through the medium of parchment, paper and now email the fidelity and speed of the communication is still constrained by the human reader who must open the document, read it and then react to it, usually by typing or writing something else. We may have improved speed of communication since that tablet was shipped from Bahrain to Babylon but we are very much in the Analogue world.

The digital economy is now a reality and it is transforming business processes, business decisions, and business outcomes. Over 3/4 of business leaders believe that achieving digital transformation will become critical to their organizations within two years. And this transformation will not be confined to the elite, the rich or the old. It is the millennials who are straining at the leash to start the transformation.

  • Sales & Marketing is increasingly personal and context aware. Digital transformation means shrinking the target segment and impacting behavior at just the right moment. No more unhappy customers complaining about missed shipments of copper.
  • Manufacturing is realizing increased flexibility to better meet customer needs and automating complex processes all while reducing batch sizes and scheduling challenges. If Ea-Nasir had a better demand signal from Nanni he could have sourced better ore.
  • Finance is incorporating predictive analysis to more accurately forecast company health and processing high volumes of transaction in real time so employees across the company have up-to-date decision support information. No more complaints about the one mina of silver that was outstanding: both merchants would know where they stood

We give a wry smile to these merchants who were doing the best they could with the available technology. If we aren’t planning the digital transformation of our own companies, we risk looking just as antiquated.

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