What is digital?

Often, when I speak at conferences, I open up by asking what people understand by the term 'digital'. Answers range from 'not analogue', and 'ones and zeros' to 'social media' and 'better user interfaces'. I sometimes chip in with my semi-joke about digital being a term used by the boardroom when they want to talk about IT but not involve the CIO. I say semi-joke, in part because there is truth in it, and in the main because half the audience don't laugh. [See also: What is Digital? Cutting through the hype in Digital Uncovered | What CEOs and boards need to know about digital]

This lack of common understanding as to what digital means is resulting in thousands of meetings taking place daily, where nobody in the room shares the same definition. Possibly it is this confusion that is causing the greatest market disruption?

When I started out, digital and IT were one and the same thing. So what's changed? In my view digital is the convergence of IT and humanity. Some 30 odd years ago, IT was in a separate room. I had to leave my desk to go to a special room with DEC terminals to get on with writing software. If I wanted to print out my source code in order to debug it, I had to submit a print job, go to another room (usually the next day) and then take the print out back to my desk. Technology lived over there and the workers resided over here.

Since then the two have merged. Desktops enabled the tech and the worker to be co-located. Smartphones enabled the tech to move with the user. Wearables take this to the next level. Embeddables is where we are heading; heart attacks are no longer a medical condition, they can now equally refer to pacemaker security breaches.

So are we becoming cyborgs? Possibly. We are certainly becoming augmented. But at the same time we are also becoming more human. Our brains are wired to be hunter gatherers. For 99% of humanity's existence, this was our natural state.

As hunter gatherers, along with our primal urges, we have the following natural tendencies:

  • To be mobile.
  • To be social.
  • To have an integrated work and life.
  • To be creative.
  • To make our own decisions.
  • To be productive.

The industrial era suppressed these tendencies. As ops manual-adhering paid labour, obliged to turn up to the same factory every day, there was little opportunity to roam, be creative and so on.  I get into this a little more in my book Beyond Nine to Five, which CIO has kindly reviewed.

For me the digital era is nature pushing its vines up through the factory floor. It is in effect mankind's return to his true nature. Keep in mind, it is the IT function that has been fighting this for decades. Tech over here. Users over there. No mobile (until the BlackBerry tsumani addressed that). No social media. No working outside the Alcatraz perimeter. As a department we have been in a prolonged war with nature. This might explain why other departments don't always see us in the best light. It's perhaps time to throw in the towel, and make nature our business partner?

So what can we do? Here are some suggestions:

Mobility:Take the lead on integrating the customer's journey across all platforms. Build user apps with the mobile being the primary form factor.

Social:Smarten it up. Introduce context-sensitive software that can automatically help users and customers mid dialogue or transaction.

Work-life:Extend the enterprise architecture to the home and coffee shop. In fact to wherever the user wants to work.

Creativity:Build personalisation into the services. Provide apps that help the users develop their creative skills. Perhaps team up with HR on this?

Decision making:We are making good progress on analytics. Make the tools more intuitive, available to all, and where appropriate, enable them to harness the self-analytics needs of the user.

Productivity:Gamify the enterprise apps. Encourage competition with leader boards.

These are just examples of how you might move forward.

I would encourage you to think about APIs. Building your application programming interfaces around these themes will help you build a service architecture that is truly digital. Perhaps API really means Anthropological Performance Initiatives?

I find myself regularly briefing business leaders on their digital strategy. Often it is in respect of capitalising on the associated opportunity. Part of this exercise invariably involves me explaining that this is as much a 'save the business' situation as a 'grow the business' opportunity. Capitalising on the digital economy means firstly transforming your business model from its industrial framework.

I think there is a real opportunity for CIOs to lead the digital conversation. It is about people. And yes jazzy user interfaces are important. But unless the technology plumbing is reengineered for digital services, as I have described them, the investment will deliver short term gains at best.

Papering the cracks, as nature's vines compromise the structural integrity of your organisation, is not the path to a sustainable business model in the digital economy.


Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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