Digital or hide! (take 2) – technology hiding places in a digital world

[NOTE: This is an updated and revised post from June of last year (2017). Prompted by David James in his recent post about selecting an LMS…or not.]

A couple of things have given me pause in my digital convictions in the last few weeks. As a traveller on the information superhighway in the mid to late 1990s and then a journeyman of the Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 eras (I’m not sure it matters what they mean either), the notion of being digital and getting into digital just seemed obvious. Why wasn’t everyone doing it? There was nowhere to hide. “Digital or die!” we yelled in smug tones. I think the sentiment still stands but it’s not as cut and dried – or rather, I now see that it is not as cut and dried.

The thing is, hiding places from digital seem to be really commonplace. They may be diminishing but there are still plenty around. Some of them offer camouflage and plenty of food drink for a good long while as well. Many folk are still holed up in them. Maybe the call should be “Digital or hide!”.

Being digital or becoming digital is obvious. There really is no excuse. The problem is, doing it properly is really quite hard and involves quite a lot of work for quite a lot of people. It also involves change. Not merely technology change but changes in people, attitudes and beahviour. Hence the hiding. Change is a popular thing to hide from. For a while – until it finds you.

I have referenced this article before and will do so again: “It’s change management. It’s not complicated; it’s just hard.”   It is a great description of the skills, practices and attitudes to genuinely make digital change work well. It describes the different factions in the Obama campaign of 2012 and the hiding places of teams who are convinced of their world view. Everyone had plenty to learn and it was painful at times and valuable all of the time. The ethics of the choices made shoud not cloud the cultural and behavioural changes.

In more recent years, I have been involved with Learning and Development and L&D folk. I have wondered why the industry has changed so little despite the use of so much technology and so much use of the word Digital. My hypothesis (for today at least) is that technology has become a place to hide for L&D in a digital world. The exhibition floor of the Learning Technologies event is dominated by various forms of LMS vendors, content authoring tools and systems and eLearning content suppliers. At the risk of sweeping generalisation, these are technological developments to simplify and add efficiency to training. They are technological places in which teams and departments can hide from digital change.

The familiar systems of the L&D world and the neighbours of HR and related enterprise systems, have created and solidified the processes by which organisations work. A digital disruption of those systems entails a disruption of process and roles. A very uncomfortable kind of change.

In the digital world (perhaps in any world) we are not learners, we are workers or doers. This is well summarised in this piece by David James  (him again) surveying the landscape on the 10th anniversary of the iPhone. Learning and Development is stuck (or hiding) in the act of making learning (training content) for digital users who are trying to get things done with a different toolset. Ever increasingly we get those things done with simple personal tools on our hand-held computers. The shape and size of training formats fits poorly with our digital productivity and communications tools. Those formats though are the output of the systems that are woven in to structures and processes of our organisations. A change here is likely to have the look and feel of real disruption. Real disruption is most uncomfortable…back to the hiding…

I will try to swerve a rant by restating the sentiment I opened with. These changes are hard to respond to and pervasive. Whole systems and language are at stake. One possible step we could start to take is to apply some of those simple personal productivity steps to our work. Use the tools we know and love as users and apply them as workers. Not to make learning but to help people with their working problems. This might be some content, pointing to content, connecting people, offering safe spaces to experiment.

This opens the possibility of Two-Speed IT. On balance, I welcome the two speed approach if the one speed model has too few gears to sufficiently speed up. Two Speed IT gives an organisation the familiarity and reduced risk of running legacy systems whilst deliberately experimenting and piloting swifter digital tools. There are resource, investment and communication complexities here but it is better than waiting for vendors to roll out upgrades at their own pace. It also helps us learn more quickly – a hallmark of digital ways of working.

There are many, many possibilities, of course. All are worthy of consideration.

Firstly, however, we need to seriously ask if we are hiding behind something.


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