Digital – do you want it or do you need it?

Going digital. Digital transformation. Digital evolution. And so on…Digital will be the most popular gift of this festive season. Everyone will want one. Well. Many organisations will want one. Some will have the nagging, awkward sense that they need one. These are two fundamentally different states: wanting to become digital (whatever it may mean) is a world away from knowing that you have to. Organisations in the former state are positive and active, those in the latter intellectually obligated and often conflicted.

Understanding the need to respond to digital changes in business can be an intellectual exercise, the result of analysis and enquiry. A good plan can be hatched from this and a sensible course followed. The organisation will respond and change to accommodate these new plans. Progress will be made. The cultural ingredient will be missing though. A genuine desire to completely change the ‘who, what and how’ of the workplace is highly unlikely to emerge. There will be a need to change but not a positive choice to do so. The plans hatched will be those of a mindset painted into a corner.

A digital culture feels different from that reactive mood. It tends to be curious and exploratory. It will spot interesting cases futher afield and bring them back to the homestead. It will find space and time to experiment and give new tools a try. Most importantly (probably most importantly), digital culture will accept and support openness and flatness. These are sensitive signals of digital culture. The sharing of information and activity openly (usually combining digital collaboration tools and publicly visible whiteboards) is a hallmark of these ways of working. It is typically paired with a structure that tends to circumvent hierarchy, bringing a speed and felixbility to decision making. The best information gets to the right place quickly and is used quickly.

On the other hand, old hierarchies and management information chains feeding committees and steering boards are artefacts of a differenct kind of culture. Waterfalls can be beautiful but they are hard to use. (Whislt I am fiddling with this metaphor, a cascade is a disorderly and organic release of energy – very different from forwarding email). An organisation feeling obliged to “be more digital” will often apply these mechanisms to their efforts. Digital development steering groups and similar gatherings are risky symptoms to be watchful of and require early treatment. 

One of the awkward requirements for digital ways to thrive is the arrival of new people. People who just are that way.  They don’t need persuading. Fresh air and clean water really do help the organism to grow healthily. This does not bode well for the incumbents and can be one of the most important impediments to change. It really is hard for old timers to learn the necessary new tricks without the help of live examples in their midst.

Writing as a veteran (or an older observer) I am conscious of the personal effort to stay fresh. Like any form of fitness, it takes constant attention. ‘Out with the old’ can be a brutal  and unnecessary reflex but there is a germ of truth in it that is dangerous to ignore.  Few of us would be comfort able to be described as old and we need to keep trim.

As I sign off from sharing this thought, I am struck by the footballing and X Factor cliche. 

“We just really want it so much”. 

A clumsy and ugly phrase but quite handy. If you mean it.

Keep on keeping on

I have been, for obscure reasons, reviewing a seven year old learning technology strategy document. This is not an artefact of an organisation I have any relationship with, by the way. It is a fascinating and instructive read. 

A contemporary reader would, I suspect, have seen this as a progressive and challenging document. It speaks of sustainability, security, ease of access and user expectations. Not many of these guidelines would make the editorial cut of today’s institutions. I can sense the tensions of managed ICT and user needs at play in the drafting. 
One section makes reference to Web 2.0 technologies as an indicator of where development should head. Tools like blogs and Wikis are itemised, these are still underused in learning, I reckon. One branded service is mentioned in emphasis of the emerging social world of students, “research indicates that 85%of US students have a MySpace entry”. I’m not really sure what entry means but I guess it’s a site. In the relatively short time since this document was signed off MySpace has come, set the world alight and disappeared. Many bets were placed (were they not Mr Murdoch) at the time as hysterics and realists sniffed the future. The service has passed on now but the writers’ insight endures.

The expectation to create, share, comment and favourite all kinds of content has only grown. It would be a brave soul who sees Facebooks’ demise form here but the social behaviour is now an intuiutve digital pattern. New products and features will emerge and pass and we will, at times, run after them rather foolishly, dropping our better judgement as we break stride. The impulse is right though. We need to be be alive to testing and trying many modes and tools to help our learners learn most effectively in the ways they feel most comfortable with. MySpace may be totally wrong now but these are their rules and new plays will be valid.

As a colleague from New York once told me about business deals, “Sometimes, you have to kiss a lot of frogs”. I think we need to acquire a taste for frogs over the long term. 

Practice but not (I suspect) perfect

During the course of the last few weeks, I have attended a few conferences and seminars, both as delegate and presenter. They have been interesting and thought provoking events. At each, I have been invited to share and consider best practice. To offer stories about how things have been done well and to consider stories of those well done by others.

This is pretty familiar territory for all of us who have spent time in and around a conference floor. An agenda is crafted by the event producers, concentrating on gathering a group of successful people together who are, hopefully, good at sharing the narrative of their success. I do not think it is uncharitable to call this “constructive showing off”. Delegates congregate around the subject in the interest of picking up some interesting and useful ideas and techniques. Meeting the people with the ideas is always a genuine motivation and has not yet been effectively digitised (virtualised?) in my experience. Headhunting is often part of the event dynamics too, both seeking employees and employment. This is also harder to do when not in the same room.

So far, so good as a sketch of many good days out for many of us conference floor citizens. I think, though, there is room for improvement in the sharing of best practice. It lies in the prizing apart of the best part. What does best really mean? Practice is still a good descriptor though. I am uncertain that we really know what best means in the digital arena. Effective, helpful, interesting, better, rewarding. These are authentic. Best I am now suspicious of.

Part of the point of Digital these days is refining and improving by increments. Better? Yes. Best, however, implies we know something more final. That it has been figured out and resolved.

By way of illustration, I attended and presented at an event dealing in digital innovation and the strategies best employed to manage it. Plenty of grist for the mill here. For those of us mainly dealing in learning matters, it was a refreshing event. Plenty of cross industry histories and reusable ideas. Very little “my sector is special” thinking which seems to dog the learning world. Tales from charities, health services, finance, insurance and communications were shared by good and very good presenters. These were proper best practice case studies as you would expect them. I doubt even the most confident of the speakers thought that they had cracked a replicable code but experience was polished to a high shine nevertheless.

I felt a growing itch which I have yet to scratch, to interrogate the stories a little a find out where the polish had faded, where the surface was scratched and cracked. I really wanted and want to know what did not work. What went wrong and how that changed the original narrative to the one recounted on the stage. Where were the spanners in the works inserted (and by whom). Maybe these are the war stories as told by the foot soldiers rather than the historians on the victors side.

I doubt this is a new insight but there is considerable scope for conferences to evolve as learning events. It is the mistakes and the responses to them that are the meat of the experience. I realise that most brand owners would shy away from plastering their errors for public display but a wise brand might share how it has grown and how its experience, the rough and the smooth of it, has generated real wisdom. I reckon there is a market for these stories, presented as lessons of rounded experience and shared in an open and uncritical atmosphere.

Maybe there is a conference out there entitled…

Digital: Well, that didn’t work…But this seems to…