Digital First is an answer – but is it the right one!

(First I must issue a wandering thoughts warning …………)

One of the challenges with ‘digital’ is that it opens the door for the ‘spinmongers’ to capitalise on the fact that digital means what people want it to mean in their specific circumstances. Wherever there is confusion there is opportunity but any person or organisation that has integrity will be more interested in bringing clarity in order to find the right way forward, rather than simply hitting and running with the money.

McKinsey have done some great work to bring sensible conclusions to the ‘how do we define digital discussion’ that in turn show why a ‘digital first’ approach may well be the worst not the best strategic imperative. It is always valuable to regularly review our, and our organisations, ‘a priori’ assumptions because they can be minefields waiting to cause chaos when they receive some footfall.

A certain corporate behemoth once had a cultural assumption that digital cameras represented no threat to their business and now they have no business!

So, back to McKinsey,

‘it is tempting to look for simple definitions, but to be meaningful and sustainable,we believe that digital should be seen less as a thing and more a way of doing things.’

I’m sure we all know the quote that ‘for every complex question there is an answer that is simple, straightforward, easy to understand and …. wrong!’ Digital first as the answer to many of the questions posed by complex public (and other) organisations may be just such an answer.

If digital is about ‘how we do things’ then we start to ask questions, before deciding the way forward. This will include questions about the extent to which a ‘digital’ solution is the correct one for any, some or all parts of a programme. The danger with the ‘digital first’ approach is that it appears to be saying ‘Here’s the answer, now what was the question?’

So, what is the phrase that I would argue better articulates the correct approach?

I liked it when I first heard the phrase and I still do…. There’s a helpful blog by Catherine Howe looking at issues and questions around ‘digital by design’

I noted in Catherine’s blog that she indicates a dislike for digital by design and a preference for digital by default and although I initially disagreed with her ( and still don’t like her examples to illustrate this) it did get me looking at the meaning or, more accurately, the range of meanings of the word ‘default’.

Leaving aside, as clearly irrelevant in this context, the whole group of meanings related to a failure to fulfil an obligation, we are left with:


[in singular] A preselected option adopted by a computer program or other mechanism when no alternative is specified by the user or programmer: ‘the default is fifty lines’

[usually as modifier] Something that is usual or standard: ‘all my life, envy has been my default emotion’


Through lack of positive action rather than conscious choice: ‘he became an actor by default’

This was, for me, a very useful exercise as I find the whole digital agenda can so easily become some ‘postmodern linguistic maelstrom’ in which everybody attributes undeclared meanings or interpretations to their words and phrases that actually renders the whole communication enterprise meaningless.

Looking at our three (potentially relevant) shades of meaning I’m not really sure any of them actually represent an approach that I would want to take.

Digital by design implies, for me at least, that we are prepared to take time considering the real objectives and requirements and to figure out what needs to happen in order to best achieve those objectives and meet those requirements. It suggests we will maintain an open mind about where and how digital delivers value and, particularly, what is best for the customers or citizens or staff members as well as best for the business.

In this, as with all phrases, the interpretation is all. There are many interesting articles that can help us form, articulate and implement digital by design such as that by Paul Taylor:

There is, however, an important point relating to a digital first approach . If we are working with a broad understanding of digital, the digital first approach may well have significant utility. If we we start with the non tech digital metaphors and begin to look at the ways in which ‘digital mindsets’ and ‘digital culture’ may offer insights into, and practical implications for, business improvement before we ever get to technology then I’d support digital first.

End of wander.

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