In defence of Digital; why it is and should be ‘a thing’

Every so often the ‘what is digital?’ question comes up on Twitter in one form or another. It always gets lots of reaction, mostly from people who work in the digital industry so the term carries all kinds of meanings, experiences and contexts, but the reaction often seems to be cynical and sceptical about the term. So here are my thoughts in defence of ‘digital’. 

Digital is just another fad

Phrases get used without any agreement about what they mean, and then the argument becomes about the definition rather than the thing itself. ‘Agile’, ‘Innovation’, and of course ‘Digital’ are all terms that suffer from a lack-of-definition problem. Of course, depending on your point of view, a lack of definition can also be a good thing because it creates space for discussion and different meanings in different contexts. ‘Digital’ in its all-encompassing meaning, is not a fad. It is here to stay, as a part of life and business for certain, and as a phrase that describes lots of different things in lots of different contexts.

Digital is about new technology but it’s more than just ICT. I heard a definition once that said IT is the internal technology function for a business and Digital is the external facing technology that is used by an organisation’s customers to interact with them. There are a couple of interesting points there; the internal/external view of who the technology is being provided for and how they will use it, and that interaction is a key point for digital technologies. Working in an organisation you wouldn’t be surprised to use one system to access documents and a different system to submit your expenses, but if you were a customer using an app you’d expect to be able to manage your profile, process payments, and do whatever the app is designed do all within the same product. The expectations of internal and external are different. Digital technologies provide a fast and convenient interface between the organisation and the customer that isn’t constrained by the characteristics of physical interactions such as location and time availability.

Digital is just a channel. If your organisation markets itself using print, TV, and Google Adwords then seeing digital as just another marketing channel makes sense. Until you expand your view. As TV advertising became a mature industry people began to appreciate how it could influence the behaviour of the masses to propagate the idea of a dominant identity and that everyone should be trying to achieve that ideal through consumerism. As digital marketing is maturing it’s important that we understand how the speed and scale of misinformation campaigns, deep fakes, etc., can influence political outcomes. Digital isn’t just a channel, in the neutral ‘same as any other channel’ sense because of its power to influence so many people in such subtle ways so quickly. 

Digital is a behaviour. Just like the ‘mobile isn’t a device, it’s a behaviour’ mantra when smartphones were the new big thing, ‘digital’ is even more so a behaviour. Digital behaviours occur in how we socialise, shop, bank, entertain ourselves, etc., etc. They are so ingrained in the goings-on of so many people that it’s easy to forget that this behaviour is significantly different from non-digital behaviour. Payment is a good example. If you pay with cash, that’s the end of your involvement in that transaction. If you pay with a credit card, the merchant device checks your card has the contactless chip, takes your card identity token, sends it and the payment amount to the acquirer service, who contact your bank to check the card is allowed to be used, tells you the payment is taken, then overnight the transaction is submitted to a bank to bank transfer, along with fraud checks and recording information against your credit history, etc., etc. The data generated at every step is part of your digital identity and you don’t even see it or know how it is used.

Part of the realisation that digital is a behaviour also needs to permeate organisational thinking in how it invests in knowledge assets and when it expects return on those investments. It requires a shift away from the physical asset investment mindset that sees a large up-front investment produce diminishing returns over time to an intellectual asset investment mindset that sees an ongoing investment produce increasing returns over a longer time period. 

Digital isn’t just a fad, and it isn’t going away any time soon.

Digital is part of every thing an organisation does and so it shouldn’t be in job titles.

The argument that team names and job titles shouldn’t include the word ‘digital’ often comes from those who have been working digitally for some time and so recognise that for their context it doesn’t make sense. Marketing teams shouldn’t be called Digital Marketing because digital is just another channel. Product Managers shouldn’t be called Digital Product Managers because the digital interface is just one part of what they do. 

Sometimes, using the word helps others understand the difference. Digital marketing works differently to traditional print advertising. Products that are accessed over the internet require different delivery mechanisms, pricing models, etc., from a physical product. If the skills and knowledge required to make digital successful in an organisation are downplayed by not being mentioned (and team names and job titles are a really blatant place to do this) it could have the effect of slowing digital adoption rather than making it part of business as usual. Digital requires a different way of thinking so if it is consumed into business as usual the difference can be lost. Visibility is a big thing in organisations. If something is important enough it’ll be made visible. And conversely, things that aren’t made visible are considered not important. 

Digital is a part of everyone’s job, but if part of the job is make the organisation more digital then explicitly and visibility help.

Digital transformation is just another IT project 

If you’ve been involved in an organisation that has undertaken a Digital Transformation project then you’re probably as jaded about it as everyone else. 

Digital isn’t the problem. Transformation isn’t the problem. The problem is organisations convincing themselves that it’s an eighteen month project that can be updated to complete when everyone has a laptop, the marketing team have hired someone with AdsWords experience, and the IT team has rolled out Office 365. 

The reality, which doesn’t look so good in presentations to the board, is that the digital transformation of any organisation is going to take decades. Every business in your supply chain is going through a digital transformation, every industry and every market is going through a digital transformation, society is going through a digital transformation, every aspect of life is going through digital transformation. No surprise then that organisations that think it’s a quick project become very disappointed and don’t see the expected short term returns. 

Digital transformation will require no less than an entirely new worldview. This new worldview will involve understanding how the internet has changed everything about our world, from how networks create exponential growth and unpredictable effects, to how we no longer think of human beings as separate biological individuals, to how software is becoming the dominant species on the planet and increasingly more complex than the human brain can grasp. 

And digital transformation will require no less than entirely new business models to be built on top of this new worldview. These new business models will involve speed and scale our current businesses can’t even imagine, will utilise automation to the extent where entire industries are made up of software-as-a-business organisations providing services for other businesses that are just software, and, to ensure we aren’t painting a too utopian picture of the future, will drive further inequalities in society as although the entire human race experiences improved quality of life from the digital transformation of business and the world, the gap between the rich and the poor will get wider.

Digital transformation is essential for every organisation to survive in the 21st century. There are no other options. 

The Sun’s attack on the charity sector

The front page of The Sun today featured a story about the fees Just Giving charged for processing donations to Captain Tom’s campaign to raise funds for NHS charities.

Front page of The Sun with article about Just Giving fees

I won’t comment on the contents of the article, partly because I didn’t read it, but mostly because there isn’t anything interesting to be said about the ‘charity sector should do everything for free’ assumption that underpins this and other similar articles.

Various far more influential charity sector people than me tweeted their support for Just Giving, their distaste for The Sun’s position presented in the article, and implicitly a criticism of regular charity-bashing that occurs in the press.

Although it’s right to defend the charity sector from this kind of ill-considered attack, it also plays into the hands of The Sun and its strategy of getting attention through feigned outrage. This is what The Sun does. It is like a petulant child doing things it knows will get a reaction. It is in the business of selling newspapers, not selling news, and it chooses to do so by finding ‘stories’ that it can present in ways it thinks will cause outrage. This also isn’t very interesting to me.

What is interesting to me is that The Sun (and other media/press organisations) find it acceptable to undertake this kind of charity-bashing. I’m all for open discussions about and critique of charities and the charity sector as it’s an important force for improvement and preventing ‘untouchable’ people from doing very negative and illegal things in the name of charity and doing good, but that isn’t what is going on here.

In political theory there is the idea of the Overton Window. It describes how politicians can only propose and support policies that fit are popular, sensible and acceptable. No politician could do anything radical or unthinkable. There exists, I think, a similar window for the press of things that are considered acceptable to use for generating outrage, and things that aren’t.

Articles about the government’s funding of the NHS is considered fair game, but if The Sun went too far outside the window, for example by criticising the NHS, then it would run the risk of the public outrage it seeks to create being directed at The Sun. Another example; the Queen is outside the window of topics of outrage but most of the rest of the royal family isn’t. And quite clearly, the charity sector is currently within that Outrage Window.

So, if we want to change The Sun’s attitude towards the charity sector and stop unwarranted charity-bashing, we need to shift where the charity sector is in the Outrage Window. Making it as socially unacceptable to bash charities as it is to bash the NHS is the goal here.

The charity sector is starting from behind as past scandals give reason to be mistrusting of charities, and it doesn’t have a single identity in the way the NHS does, but it doesn’t seem like an insurmountable problem, although perhaps one that would require greater concerted effort than could be achieved at present times.

Subsidiarity theory and the role of charities in society

Subsidiarity theory holds that social and political issues should be dealt with at the most immediate or local level that is consistent with their resolution. This theory underpins the role of charities in society.

It says that charities are best placed to deal with issues such as food poverty by providing food banks because they can respond locally to specific needs, whereas government would respond nationally which wouldn’t be as effective.

In this way, the charity sector could be seen to be implicitly supporting the state in not dealing with the underlying causes of the issues at a systematic level.

Philosophically then, charities could be seen to be stuck between individualism of doing what helps people vs. collectivism of doing what changes the system.

In reality, the charity sector is very good at balancing this conflict by delivering services and campaigning for change. There are numerous examples of charities bringing about changes in policy whilst supporting people in need.

Charity serves an important role in society, not only by helping people in need, but also in bringing about progressive change. Charity is not a response to the failings of a society, it is an integral part of a society’s success.

“An active, questioning charity sector is one of the guarantees of democracy… Government and democracy without voluntary exertion and voluntary idealism loses its soul.”

Lord Longford, reporting to the Nathan Committee.

The impact of emerging technology on charities

Manifesto’s ‘The Future Charity‘ report includes an interesting graph about the impact of technology on the charity sector.

The technology considered to have the most impact is ‘alternative payments’, which doesn’t seem like a technology on the scale of Machine Learning or Internet of Things. Maybe its a result of knowledge about the tech and/or how close and direct the impact feels.

But, perhaps the most important thing to consider is that none of these technologies exist in isolation, it isn’t like one is going to impact charities more or less, because actually all of them are going to change society, which changes the lives of charity beneficiaries.

So the question isn’t how autonomous vehicles are going to affect charities, but how autonomous vehicles are going to put lots of already low paid people out of work, and so how are charities going to help those people?

Technology is often promoted as a democratising force; just look at how the printing press gave knowledge to everyone, but the application of technology isn’t neutral. In an unequal society it is used to increase inequality.

So, if we’re thinking about how emerging technology affects charities, the really big question is, what does a world with all these technologies look like? Only then can we begin to think about charity’s roles in that world.

Cause-agnostic Charity

A charity that doesn’t start with or centre itself around a cause? How could that be? Is it even legally possible under Charity Commission regulations?

What would it do? Anything it wanted to make the world a better place. Think Jukesie’s Squads-as-a-service, able to point a diverse range of charitable skills and expertise at any issue, from fundraising to service delivery.

Perhaps it might mean throwing away the competitive market orientated notion of charities competing for scare resources where one of the checks a new charity has to do is to make sure another charity isn’t already doing what you want to do (not whether they are actually being effective), but this wouldn’t be a problem for a cause-agnostic charity.

Then, rather than the moral question of whether a charity should being trying to make itself unnecessary, and what the implications of that might be for the people that work for that charity, the question for all cause-agnostic charities is, what’s the biggest, worst, most urgent problem facing our world, society, community, town, village.