Over the past few days and weeks, a recurring mantra has appeared in conversations I have had, or overheard, with clients. “Well, nobody really knows what digital is, do they?” goes the question.
At first this seems like a fair point — after all, isn’t it yet another term trotted out by a marketing-led technology industry, another bandwagon defined by some analyst firm, to be got with and differentiated against.
Indeed, last time such a point was raised about a ‘megatrend’, the topic was cloud. In that case, the question was on the money: as intervening history has shown, the term was poorly defined, easily abused by gung-ho marketers and in general, made explanations more complicated rather than simpler.
So such scepticism is as understandable as it is, in the case of digital, misplaced. Over the past 3-4 years since the term started being thrown about once again, what has become clear is that ‘digital’ is a business-led, not an IT-led initiative.
At its heart is a simple principle: that technologically enabled data flows are now everywhere, connecting everything that can be connected. There are no boundaries to reach, nor to innovation, nor to privacy.
This is fundamentally different to old-world use of technology, where data was over there, to be managed by an IT department and protected with firewalls. It is notable that Google has removed the latter, with its Beyond Corp initiative.
Which brings to the point. It’s an old joke in the title, I know, but it seemed appropriate to roll it out. ‘Digital’ is a state of mind that needs to exist at board level. Either an organisation acts like data is everywhere, or like it is over there. It’s the difference between being a digital native, or, well, not being so.
Businesses know this, and in many cases are restructuring to take the shift into account. The term being bandied around is ‘digital transformation’, or that horrible word, digitalisation.
But let’s be clear. This is not some journey to be started upon never to be completed, nor an initiative to be piloted to see what works.
If you want an example of a major company that ‘gets it’, look no further than GE. Since I started speaking to the company a few years ago, it has gone from an organisation that recognised the need to change, through an organisation embracing change, to an organisation being that change.
The journey started, and ended, at the very top. I met with Harel Kodesh CTO of GE Digital at the end of last year, and we had a good conversation as one would hope. More interesting than what was discussed, was the way in which it was discussed however.
Right now however the organisation is already making its bets as a digital organisation, for example with its digital twins or Predix platform initiatives. It is an organisation without any doubt in its mind about strategy or direction. It is all-in on digital.
Of course such efforts might fail, business was ever thus. Someone else might steal GE’s lunch, or the company might make bad decisions. But nobody can doubt the organisation’s clarity over that single question: what is digital?
I doubt anyone inside the organisation still cares, as they are too busy.
The fact is, if you have to ask the question, you probably have a way to go. In the digital world, we need to think like children, break away from our legacy understanding of where technology sits, and accept the fact that it has changed from without to within.
Understand this, simple yet profound truth, and you can return to the field and set a strategy accordingly. Fail to do so and be doomed to pondering the question, long after those who have answered it are already gone.