Unfolding plans 46 – What is digital?

Last week I attended my first Executive Leader’s Network in Reading.  There is another one in September and while it’s a long way away it might be worth considering.  I was asked to host or chair or lead a round-table discussion which turned out to be me standing up in front of twenty five or so high-ranking Chief Information Officers for half an hour.  It seemed to go well enough.  There was a lot of engagement and a good flow.

You may remember that I had a few questions which I posed to the group.  What is digital?  Is it tangible or a way of thinking?  Is it about technology?  In the future will there be any non-digital businesses?  The answers were fascinating and reflected some of the difficulty that we have when talking about the role of technology to our colleagues back in the businesses.  Needless to say there were some differences in opinions or perspectives.

Some thought of digital as the creation of apps that could be accessed from your smartphone using your thumb.  Others saw it as a movement allowing us to apply technology to analogue processes with a view to improving efficiency.   In a similar vein some saw it as working with the support functions of the organisation to remove or at least to speed up antiquated and resource hungry processes.  Another saw it as a useful label that can be used to describe to customers a movement where technology is used to make life easier, quicker and more interesting.  I added that I felt that the word digital represents a new way of living where the edges of work and home life, occupation and leisure are blurred, where we have an almost unlimited opportunity at our disposal to function in a different way.

One of the delegates pointed out that human civilisation accounted for a very small fraction of the life of the earth and what we are witnessing is the evolution of mankind.  Digital is human evolution.

It was a lively discussion but showed the difficulty that we have in using digital as a defining terminology.  If we, at the pinnacle of the profession can’t describe what it means then what hope do we have when it comes to those outside of the industry?

We all agreed on one thing though.  Digital has been around for some time.  It may be a new word but it describes the ever-quickening transformation of our lives using information and communication technologies.  We used to prefix words with e- to make them sound modern and that was soon replaced with i-.  We’ve talked about smart technologies and other euphemisms which soon become dated and, I’m afraid, hackneyed.

Each of us had been instrumental in driving enormous change through our organisations.  I doubt if any one of them could survive now without the support of its technologies.  They are integral to the way businesses are run and they are becoming more and more important to their future survival.

So digital may mean many things, it could be all things to all men.  Whatever we call it though there is huge opportunity to transform the ways that we live and work through the application of technology.  There has been ever since mankind picked up a flint.

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