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.

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