Abstract: Digital in its commonly used form today is implicitly understood but not well defined. This blog post suggests a working definition for the word digital when used as either a noun or an adjective that is practical and industry agnostic. Most importantly, it emphasises the human element as being more significant than the technological.
Digital is a word we can’t escape. Some call it hype. Some IT people even wonder what the fuss is about; they’ve been doing digital for years, right? This makes it even more surprising that a good working definition of the word – as used in terms such as digital transformation, digital workplace and digital strategy – is so hard to find.
Digital in the modern disruptive sense is far more than its dictionary definition as a series of 1s and 0s. It also represents a great deal more than digital computing, which has been with us since the advent of the third industrial revolution in the 1960s. Technology is evolving at an unprecedented rate, which is the key driver of today’s fourth industrial revolution. But most remarkable isn’t the technology itself, but the human and business outcomes it makes possible. These have the potential to create a better world for us all; in the wrong hands, of course, the opposite could be just as true.
What distinguishes a digital solution from a more traditional computing one are innovation, novelty and originality. Airbnb, Uber and Facebook could not have been conceived in an earlier period as there was simply no technology frame of reference beforehand to imagine them. Kodak saw its business model as that of a chemical company producing film for cameras, and hence missed the opportunity to be the leader in digital photography. Even Apple failed to foresee music streaming until Spotify disrupted its nascent iTunes download model. Today, digital disruption can occur from unexpected quarters for even the most established organisations. Indeed, there has never been a time before when the pace of technological change has been so far ahead of what society or business transformation can easily accommodate.
To survive in a digital world, organisations need to think differently and more creatively. Having an innovative workplace culture is more important than the underlying technology itself. This is where lean and agile working come to the fore, with concepts such as hackathons, minimum viable products, A/B testing and failing fast being the new norms for leading organisations.
A working definition of digital, whether used as a noun or an adjective, needs to include all the above elements if it is to be meaningful in today’s world. The following is my attempt at this and I hope you find it useful.
Digital refers to the exploitation of innovative technology to create positive human and organisational outcomes. This is achieved through the development of solutions that not long ago would have been unimaginable or thought impossible. Today, such solutions are likely to be based on one or more of the following technologies:
However, digital is about more than technology itself. By drawing on the principles of the lean start-up movement, complemented by a strong focus on human-centred design, digital also impacts organisational culture, ways of working and business models. In this, digital favours agile, iterative and experimental techniques that allow organisations to respond far more quickly to business needs and market opportunities than was possible in earlier eras.
In this definition I’ve aimed to be industry agnostic. The definition could, of course, be adapted as required to serve specific industries or markets. The technology list is not complete, and items in it such as cloud computing and big data analytics are now verging on mainstream. The list is also the least important part of the definition, and the most susceptible to change. Of greatest significance in the definition are the human elements, from outcomes to culture; if you can focus on and succeed with these, relatively speaking, the technology will take care of itself.
This blog post is also published at https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/definition-digital-tony-scott/.