Dropping digital?
Ben Holliday

Good digital might require less “digital”

Warning: this response contains a terrible and half-thought-through canal analogy. Brace yourself.

Many people think this is a trivial topic, but I think it’s vital — language begins everything.

Are people saying it should be dropped altogether? That wouldn’t make sense, but it is overused, and can be extremely unhelpful.

It’s the ideas, the breadth, potential and scope of the transformation — that’s what’s important about ‘digital’. But, as a word to encapsulate all that, ‘digital’ falls short, and actually skews the work away to somewhere far less transformative.

To the initiated it’s a byword to something very special — a vital, powerful and new(ish) opportunity. It feels special (to me too), and once you get it, you run with it as a buzzword, because it’s exciting and a new world. The word is shiny and seems to really stick with people, but it very quickly gets lazily used.

We may live in a digital age, but that sounds like a good label to use in hindsight, than to use as a call to convene those working on the broadest and most powerful definition of digital transformation.

Aren’t we more living in an age of ‘the new ways of working that digital technology enables’? Lots of words, not very catchy. But ‘digital’ narrows us — just the internet. Just things online.

​In assisted digital world, we’ve seen a thousand times how the word ‘digital’ and, more to the point, the language, mentality, strategy and scope that spins from it, so often leads to or supports narrow approaches to transformation. Certainly this is reflected time and again with assisted digital — an offline thing so often not seen as part of ‘digital’, often a proxy for ‘online’. This makes it very hard for offline, operational and policy side of transformation to get traction, get taken seriously, and get done well. Which means whole services are also often not done well, for all users.

A service builder tells me today that too few public sector people understand the breadth of what digital means — despite all our work and talking! — and that people “outside the loop” interpret digital as just building online services, not commonly making the link to all the other parts of the whole service. They’re even seeing improved stakeholder and staff engagement when they avoid the term, particularly around the ‘non-digital’ elements of services.

I work mostly with the people trying to define, understand, research for, provide, create procurement frameworks for, measure, assure, fund or get funding for assisted digital, and can say that ‘digital’ not only doesn’t convey all that digital people want it to, but creates that very powerful and overly websitey silo.

Maybe digital folk are too close to the woods to see the trees? To ‘do a Bracken’ and draw a 19th century infrastructure analogy, are we engineers working on transforming the UK by building a national network of canals, needing to involve people of such a wide range of skills (to work not only on the new canals but its boats, associated industries, bridges, towpaths, locks, and connected road, river and sea networks) and with such broad benefits (to the whole economy, beyond anyone on a boat or anywhere near water) but then calling that very broad and extraordinary transformation something as narrow as, perhaps, ‘Canal Transformation’, or Water Transformation, or just Canal, or Water? If I had been working on canals when they’d first come along then I may have been very excited by them, and wanted to refer to everything as being about canals. But they, and digital, are a means to an end. “Canal” would not resonate with me, a local farmer, despite the potential to get my spuds to much wider markets via a canal. Good god that’s a clunky analogy, but… maybe you get my point?!

The transformation, the shift, is so important — why pin it on a word that doesn’t resonate with so many, nor communicate what we’re trying to communicate? Why use a word so widely that only really works for those who have learnt to ascribe to it the wider, deeper meaning?

You’ve needed many other phrases instead of ‘digital’ to better explain it in this post: “responding to the challenges of an increasingly technology-driven world”, “technology-driven change”, “internet-era”, “rapidly advancing tech”, “changing business models and expectations driven by the advancement of technology”.

You’re absolutely right about better framing the conversation, shifting the way we look at challenges, but if in some ways the words are the problem then changing them will help too.

All that said, it’s ruddy hard to better describe the transformation that ‘digital’ intends to encapsulate! Perhaps ‘agile’? Modern? User-centred? I dunno. Been round the houses with this one that’s for sure.