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.