Pivoting to digital might not solve the problem

In February of 2011, News Corp launched, with some fanfare, The Daily. You are forgiven for missing this. It had a brief trajectory before coming to earth with something of a dull thud. It was an iPad inspired news app. Rupert Murdoch was greatly enthused by the arrival of the iPad and the possibilities it offered. (My recollection of 2010 is of a large number of senior managers arriving at work with their new devices, heralding them to be ‘the future of work’. Ring any bells?).  What he saw in the iPad was the potential to recreate the newspaper for the digital world. He imagined a high fidelity reading experience, quality photography and writing, with page turning UI – the layout and ‘feel’ of a newspaper wrapped in an iOS interface. Proper newspaper ads had space too. As the name suggests, there was a daily publication schedule, supported by a dedicated newsroom. This was not a small venture.

The Daily needed around 500,000 subscribers to pay the $0.99 daily sub to read it. Only 100,000 signed up to do so. About a year later, The Daily folded, unable to sustain the investment required. There are a number of reasons for the failure, all of them germaine today. The Daily was platform specific, so not portable, despite paying for it; it was updated slowly and often out of date on publication; it was a closed experience, sealed from the rising use of social media for news; it was paywalled in an era of (mainly) free access to newspaper websites and there were few exclusive elements to warrant the price. In the end, it was a newspaper website locked in an iOS app.

What Murdock saw in the iPad was the solution to his problem as a newspaper publisher: “how can I use technology to recreate the newspaper in a digital form?”. The consumer problem sounded more like: “how do digital services allow me to access up to date news, whenever and wherever I want it, for the lowest possible price?”

“Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution.” Clay Shirky

The L&D world needs to be careful of solving supply-side problems in the current “pivot to digital”. There is a strong impulse to solve the problems of distribution and delivery, in digital form, of what the industry does anyway. There is a risk that the pivot ends up as webinars added to content portals (curated or otherwise), an LMS and an enterprise social platform. The early Covid spate of webinars about webinar delivery is a signal of this risk. 

People were running Zoom pub quizzes on their own whilst organisations prepared instructional  content on how best to use the platform. There have also been dark whispers of all day webinars and multiple day courses running as virtual classrooms. As a colleague said recently, “I don’t even want to watch The Clash for 6 hours”. 

Having been thrown into the deep end of the digital world by a pandemic, we all figured out how to swim. We grabbed at buoyancy aids and called for help. We inflated pyjamas whilst treading water. We found swimming instructors to hand wherever we could, professional or otherwise. There was no time to book a course from the pool. 

From what I have seen, admittedly without research, the pressing performance problems are along the lines of “Does our business survive this? If so, how do I contribute?”; “What does my job look like now?”; “Who do I talk to now that most of my customers are furloughed?”; “Why am I so tired?”; “What did my boss mean by that email last night?”. There may well be a webinar in there somewhere. There are other forms of facilitation needed though, all of which are more complex, messy and less predictable than a linear response. They involve analysis of behaviour patterns in our digital muddle and an articulation of problems from the other end of the telescope. 

The challenge is, as always, arriving at a valuable problem to solve. It’s too late to pivot to digital, however. Google was launched in 1998 and YouTube in 2005. MS Teams is in mid leap frog over most Learning Technologies currently in place. Content is not the problem. Connection is not the problem. I reckon that meaningful facilitation through our problems might be though. But not on an iPad app or webinar. 

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