The Path to Digital

Forgive the silence. It’s been a busy summer. But it’s coming to an end, and hopefully that means a little more space to think.

Looking back over the summer, one of the things that stands out to me is the challenge that still exists before we get to the place I often describe here. As I got started, I said “we are becoming a digital society,” and I was mostly thinking about the issues we’ll have to face as technology is woven through our everyday life. I wasn’t thinking as much about the “becoming” part of that statement, and it’s pretty clear that we’re not there yet.

The reason for the blind spot was the same reason for all blind spots: failing to consider the gap between my personal experience and reality. In my day job, I spend lots of time ingesting details about how new technology will be disrupting the world as we know it. Some of these details are backed up by real-world examples, but many are theoretical (and that percentage may be growing). In my personal life, I enjoy using technology. I’m not a hard-core geek, but I feel like I’m above average and have a good sense for the potential of new trends. From my friends and family, I see a wider range of tech interest and aptitude. I knew this was a small sample, but I still thought it gave a little extra perspective on how different people were adopting different things.

The net result was, predictably, a viewpoint that favored the cutting edge of technology and the usage patterns of the US middle class. This works out fine if I’m talking about the application of technology in American business (which, happily, is what I am paid to focus on). It’s not as good if I’m trying to speculate on the implications of a digital society. Obviously, a single summer hasn’t turned me into an expert, but I did come away thinking about three things that need to happen before we completely realize a new world order.

1 — We actually all have to be connected. No one is thinking that the global population all has equal access to the Internet. Projects like Facebook’s and Google’s Loon are certainly attacking the issue head-on. But these projects — and a large amount of the discussion — focus on the developing world. Connectivity there will obviously drive progress that is desperately needed, but there are similar issues closer to home that could use more attention.

When I was in Louisville this summer presenting for KACTE, my discussion was on introducing the different pieces of CompTIA’s IT Framework into educational plans. I was thinking that novel applications could be incorporated into lesson plans, but I was the one who got educated when the teachers from the eastern part of the state told me about the state of technology in their schools (minimal) and student homes (often non-existent). The national broadband map of advertised speeds backs them up.

No doubt the people in the low-speed parts of the U.S. are still better off than people in the third world. But it’s hard to have national conversations about things like data regulations or educational standards when there’s still a big digital divide. Our top speeds still aren’t world-class, but we need to make sure there’s good coverage everywhere rather than just helping the fast get faster.

2 — We have to realize that increased usage doesn’t equal increased literacy. At least not in the same proportion. I’ve seen this at work: the biggest challenge companies cite in building mobility strategies is the training they have to do for their workforce. It’s a little surprising, because everyone is using smartphones these days. But using them in everyday life doesn’t translate perfectly to using them in an enterprise setting.

Still, everyday usage seems to imply a certain amount of savvy. This isn’t necessarily the case either. I was in North Carolina visiting family, and they all had relatively new iPhones (6s). None of them were really using TouchID though. When I set it up, they loved it. But I stopped short of trying to set up Apple Pay. I know people with good iPhone skills who have still found Apple Pay logistics a bit tricky, so I figured baby steps were in order.

I was surprised that Touch ID hadn’t been set up (or even explained, apparently) when they got their phones. And a little surprised that they didn’t seem to know that Touch ID was even a thing. But obviously a wide-scale FinTech revolution isn’t going to happen overnight if people don’t know that capabilities exist, much less how to use them.

3 — We need to move quickly…but carefully. Partly because of the previous point and partly because entrepreneurs smell money in tech, we’re getting new stuff introduced at a crazy pace. And because the recent stuff (cloud and mobility) went so well, there’s a high willingness to experiment with an equally high expectation for success.

Unfortunately, moving fast carries a lot of risk. At ChannelCon, we had a few sessions that left the audience feeling a little unsettled. I don’t think the robots are going to take all our jobs, but automation capabilities are getting awfully impressive, and we need to figure out how to leverage them to reach new heights. Then, of course, there’s security. Given the unwillingness to follow long-held best practices for passwords, it’s unlikely that people are ready to adopt a mindset to defend against modern attacks.

Being a digital society doesn’t mean that we just get to jump into a new toybox and start playing. There are new rules, and those rules have a lot of history behind them. Starting with some basics and then layering in new concepts will help adoption be smoother.

The times, they are a-changin’. And I’ll continue to be interested in how we should behave in the new times. But I’m also realizing that the change process itself is going to be interesting also.