Digital is not IT

Tom Cochran
Jul 21, 2015 · 4 min read

Do you understand the difference between IT and digital?

Do you understand the difference between IT and digital? If you don’t, your company is going to have a hard time competing in today’s fast-paced economy. Too many senior business leaders conflate the two on the narrow view that they both have the common foundation of technology.

I started my career as an IT consultant for the federal government, prior to the term “digital” defining an industry, and before its predecessor “new media” was the term du jour. These were the days where Eudora was a common email client, Lycos was a popular search engine, and IT teams would be responsible for company printers as well as their websites. We’ve come a long way since then.

Though they maintain a common ancestor and foundation, expertise in information technology does not equate to the same in digital.

You should understand the core differences between the two, or risk putting the wrong players on the field.

IT is systems. Digital is people.

Information technology has traditionally been about “things” you procure via capital expenditures like computers, servers, printers, phones, and other systems to power your company. The field is evolving rapidly from things to services like Google Apps or Office 365 to power your email. But, the premise is that IT is focused on identifying and providing tools to keep your company operating efficiently.

Digital is a field that focuses on communicating with people, both individually and en masse. A digital strategy helps define an organization’s culture to better engage with their customers. It focuses on individuals, their emotions, motivations, and inclination to take action (e.g., buy something from your company or donate to your organization).

IT is what. Digital is how.

Expanding on the previous statement, IT is about what you need to accomplish your mission and digital is about how you are going to use what you have to accomplish the mission.

You really don’t want the team setting up your Wi-Fi to handle your social media strategy, nor would you benefit from the reverse.

IT is linear. Digital is dynamic.

Traditionally, IT projects operate on a linear timeline with a beginning, middle, and end, at which point the system being developed goes into maintenance mode.

The industry is evolving quickly, but change is difficult. Countless business-critical legacy systems are difficult to upgrade or migrate into service or cloud-oriented architectures. IT managers historically ran large capital expenditure budgets which required years of planning and asset amortization.

Digital startups can appear out of nowhere and within a year become serious players in the market. The emergence of software as a service and the significantly lowered barriers to entry have enabled these small companies to identify target markets, and permitted them to quickly pivot to meet dynamic and evolving customer needs.

IT is planning. Digital is doing.

Strategic planning is a good thing. But there’s such a thing as death by planning. Speed is imperative in digital because your time to market can make or break you. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good. Results should always trump process.

Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good. Results should always trump process.

Over the years, I’ve encountered several organizations that continue to run their digital projects out of their IT shops and end up failing, or at best, delivering a subpar product. Make sure you understand these points and take them to heart. It could very well determine whether your organization meets its goals, or fails to reach its objectives, floundering in mediocrity.

This was cross-posted on LinkedIn

    Tom Cochran

    Written by

    Public diplomacy @StateDept; CTO @AtlanticMedia; ran @WhiteHouse digital tech; TCK grew up in Asia; contribute to @Entrepreneur @HarvardBiz; @Nationals 2015!