What is Digital – the return
We are in the midst of the Digital Revolution, a globally relevant event lasting (in all likelihood) a small number of decades on a world timeline of millennia. It is the third, fourth, fifth, sixth or even seventh Digital Revolution, depending on which article you choose to believe when you ask Google. In truth of course, there is no right answer because the only right answer could be determined with the insight given by time travel, looking back on these times from, perhaps, the 23rd century.
If we get that far.
I, and multitudes of others, have written about digital many times. Digital is a mindset. Digital is pace and agility. Digital is “what the web would do”. Digital is social media. Digital is Marketing. Digital is Cloud. Digital is the Internet of Things. Digital is whatever you want it to be to suit the marketing messages that you want to put out to market. Perhaps you detect a degree of Digital Disillusionment in my tone. If so, it is perhaps with regard to the marketing spin, rather than the fundamental nature of change.
Perhaps my disillusionment also stems from our (society) ability to keep up with that pace and agility. It’s a problem I’ve noted more having shifted from a CDO role (strategist and evangelist, change agent) to a COO role (operational responsibility day in day out). It’s the shifted from enthusing and imagining, to delivering core product and service to expected service levels with too little time for digital evolution. In my experience, that’s not dissimilar from many organisations that I’ve seen.
When I started working, the concept of ‘job for life’ was still very much a reality, especially within public services and ‘British’ industries. It was normal for people to work together for 20-30-even 40 years. I’ve seen it personally in my current role, returning to colleagues (still substantively the same teams) that I last worked with 20 years ago. Those environments created tight bonds, families rather than work colleagues – an important social part of the workplace in which I grew up.
At the moment I can’t see it ever repeated. Where average tenure was 20 years, now perhaps it is 2, and with a direction over the next twenty years likely headed towards even shorter task based employment. But with speed of change ever increasing, how do you personally learn fast enough, adapt fast enough to thrive in a Digital workplace. Technologies, coding languages, tools, methods, business needs …all are changing faster than ever before. At an individual level, this provides massive opportunity and learning potential. At a workforce level, it provides massive challenge to maintain relevance and currency. At a society level, the effect is absolutely unknown territory.
If the Digital revolution started with the internet, we’re twenty years in to it. If massive mobile adoption turns out to be the trigger, maybe five to ten, if IoT then we’re only just starting. My worry … my challenge … is that for organisations not born in the web, for people not born digitally native .. then how do we avoid just being passed by.
Superficially, surely it is an advantage for organisations like Adyen and Google – born in the web – higher proportion of Digital Native workforce. And yet, it is clear that there is still a massive role for wisdom and experience, providing that an open mind is maintained towards ways of working. Pace and agility can sometimes ignore consequence and complexity. Digital first can fundamentally disrupt, but does not always deliver (and I recognise the value of ’fail fast’). We still have to find a way of fusing the two, of recognising the value of both.
For the next ten years, society will have a workforce consisting of multiple generations, from X through to Millenials. As a society, we cannot afford to write off the experience of the X’s, and equally cannot afford to ignore the inexperience of the Millenials. We have to provide a bridge – each able to learn from the other (ref: Reverse mentoring). The world cannot be massively simplified. But Digital does allow us to take shortcuts to reaching the complexity.
But … in doing so, what about those in the middle? Are they the forgotten generation of the workplace - those neither millennial nor with the same degree of corporate memory as the X’s. They are caught between an abundance of rules and hierarchy, and the chaos and pace of Digital. In five to ten years time, when the last X’s are retiring, who fills that void? It is not so simple to see.
Digital is changing the world. This revolution is unlike any before. It drives a pace of change never seen before, and one that it is difficult to imagine sustaining. It is a wonderful thing and yet it is a dangerous thing. However many embrace, more do not. So many still see as irrelevant, unknown, too late to change, too hard to try, a corporate problem rather than an individual opportunity.
In 2012, I remember commenting that how could organisations like HMV and Woolworths and Blockbusters not see the threat of Digital. At the time, it was a comment on the product offering to the consumer - CD to Digital Download, Bricks and Mortar to Online, Video cassettes to online streaming.
I see their challenge from that time better now. As much as the consumer, it’s about employees - the mindset of the board, the mindset of an employee population. Change can only happen together. “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink,”, and yet the horse needs to drink to survive.
Whatever your industry, the Digital Revolution offers an opportunity to Digital Natives (and Digital Immigrants), and born in the web organisations, to disrupt you. No limits, no barriers. You might think that there are, but they will be bashed down quickly enough. We see it more with every month that passes.
So what is Digital? Digital is that mindset. And Digital is pace. Just not for everyone. Digital isn’t about the technologies – that changes too quickly. If my Digital Disillusionment does exist, it is certainly not with Digital per se, but with the ability of our society en masse to keep up with the pace of change – especially those caught in the middle of their careers. For the moment, you (whether individual, or business) just need to recognise that if you don’t marry that mindset and pace with open minded experience, then you better focus on a 5 year window in the workplace, rather than anything more.