Management Fads of the 21st Century.  #3. Digital Everything

“Digital usually refers to something using digits, particularly binary digits.” A digital strategy is “often characterized by the application of new technologies to existing business activity and/or a focus on the enabling of new digital capabilities to their business.” 

All we seem to read at the moment (apart from Bitcoin, oh, and AI and Brexit and what happened to 3D Printing?) is about Digital presence, Digital plans, Digital strategy,  Digital champions,  Digital culture,  Digital divide,  Digital economy,  Digital world,  Digital future,  Digital risk,  Digital marketplace,  Digital citizens, and the list goes on – and on. A veritable Digital revolution… But is it really?

A cynic might comment that everyone wants to be on the latest bandwagon, especially if there is money to be made, and only until the next bandwagon heaves into view. Looking underneath the frenetic activity I wonder if the cynics might have a point.

Your company needs to understand these changing times and prepare to re-position yourself in the future, OK, but these ‘changing times’ are complex, interesting and suggest the type of transition the world only sees once every 60 years or so (more about the Kondratieff or Long Waves in a later blog) as can be seen in the diagram.

If the trend analysis is to believed we are living with the outputs of the 5th wave, IT and Communications, which, of course means ‘Digital’.  Looking more into the idea of a communications ‘revolution’, we can find the work of Elin Whitney-Smith (2011), who says that the ‘digital age’ is just the last in a long line of Information Revolutions that the human race has experienced over the years. Note the word ‘Information’ in the title; she suggests the following:

  1. Among hunter–gatherers just before the invention of agriculture;
  2. The rise of counting and written language;
  3. The fall of Rome;
  4. The invention of the printing press;
  5. The electric information revolution that accompanied trains, telegraph, and telephone;
  6. The digital information revolution that we are now living through.

Looking at this list, it seems to me that we have focused on the word ‘digital’, at the expense of the word ‘information’.  Everywhere I look people are falling over themselves to create the biggest, smartest, cleverest channel ever invented – but I don’t hear much about the message that is being pumped down the channel, or whether/how it is being received by its target audience. Maybe one measure of this success is the almost 40% of people who use ‘ad blocking’ software to deal with what has become known as spam. Let us remember that the name of the game is not send lots of messages but getting them received in such a way that they create the desired behaviour.

The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) have been surprisingly open in their assessment “We messed up, as technologists, tasked with delivering content and services to users, we lost track of the user experience… The fast, scalable systems of targeting users with ever-heftier advertisements have slowed down the public internet and drained more than a few batteries. We were so clever and so good at it that we over-engineered the capabilities of the plumbing laid down by, well, ourselves. This steamrolled the users, depleted their devices, and tried their patience”

Despite research regularly saying that, apart from branded websites, customers prefer to see advertising on customer reviews, newspapers TV and magazines than digital ads online or, least of all, mobile; the advice is to do more digital. A triumph of hope over experience I wonder, or a case of Emperor’s new clothes?

But I am not one to get embroiled in tactics. Look again at the diagram above and you will notice that the ‘Great Recession’ of 2008 (we absolutely must never use the word depression) brought the 5th wave, driven by ITC, to a crashing end. If past experience is anything to go by then the 6th wave is in its infancy now and should be taking off during the next ten years. Unfortunately nobody knows what will drive the 6th wave. There are many opinions but all are driven by how we see the world now. Few would have believed that a few geeks working out of their garages in the 1970’s could have changed the world so much.

The big money has already been made on the 5th, ITC wave and you can name the billionaires as well as I can – all that is left now are the crumbs from the table which everybody is trying to hoover up.

Everything-is-Digital is a dangerous obsession that distracts us from the future.  Everything was land until the industrial revolution, everything was steam until the internal combustion engine and everything will be digital until the 6th wave starts.

By all means ‘go digital’, but not at the expense of the information you are trying to communicate and not at the expense of missing the 6th wave – which is coming your way soon.

In the meantime, as Tom Goodwin, in his excellent article (see references) says “Dream don’t engineer, don’t look back on the past, work around the unmet needs and unstated dreams of customers in the modern age. And yes, of course that includes a mobile website.”


Tom Goodwin:

Elin Whitney-Smith: