Digital could be the Wikipedia citation for ‘a word least understood by many, and mostly abused by marketeers’ although ‘big data’ also makes a pretty strong case. And you know what, that’s actually not a bad thing.

Here’s why. One of the most depressing conversations I’ve witnessed was between two senior execs arguing endlessly over the definition of digital. One maintained network carriers moved it mainstream to differentiate from their legacy ‘analogue’ services. The other – not surprisingly with responsiblity for IT – countered with a strict definition of its binary characteristics. At one point, someone might have struck out into a less than thrilling discourse on Base 2. I’d zoned out by this time.

They were both sort of right within their own narrow context, but so breathtakingly wrong when viewed from a world peopled by digitally disrupted services. I used the word ‘people’ quite deliberately, as many of the electronic services on offer are merely a digital veneer hiding a disparate and disjointed product poorly cobbled together.

We regularly interchange digital and technology which is exactly why the people, process and data get short changed as so-called digital services are showcased. An organisation may want to be ‘Digital by Default’ and that’s a fine aspiration but humans are analogue whether they are customers, employers, associates or partners. So digital services must start with people and their needs.

And we’re treating those people disgracefully. A representative example is called for: web site contact channels; support paired right back and hidden behind anonymous forms rarely responded to. Knowledge bases packed with generic uselessness. Phone numbers transporting you to the hell of the IVR. Self service is great, and sure it’s cheap to operate, but you cannot just stick a digital concierge on your web site and assume that’s the job done.

Organisations agonise over losing control of their brand when customers take to their preferred social media channels to castigate bad service. Tough luck, do it better first time and don’t confuse digital by default with a lowest cost of operation. Nor get blindsided by technology that doesn’t serve your customer.

So we’re not doing a very good job in the digital services space. The future of digital is not lower TCO, it’s disruption of traditional business models and the creation of entirely new ones. This isn’t a rehashing of the digital music revolution, it’s a recognition that everything will change – the cars we drive or don’t, the work we do and the organisations that we work for, the way we learn, collaborate and communicate and even the cigarettes we might smoke.

Digital disruption will likely emerge way beyond the SWAT analysis of any competitors, coming with a lightweight footprint and a genuinely transformational service offering or a much lower cost. Or, most likely both. And it’s coming for all businesses, not just the high profile land grabs we’ve seen so far.

Much – if not most – of the enabling infrastructure for this is technology, specifically in the data and cloud offerings. Organisations burdened with architectural debt, legacy applications and moribund business practices can only respond by invoking a continuous change mind-set, not some one-off, three year change programme.

They must still start with people. We’re in danger of creating ‘digital hermits’ firstly from older generations uncomfortable with technology, and then an every increasing band of those who wish to disengage from the digital world for reasons of authenticity or privacy.

Digital Disruption looks and sounds scary, but if we get it right, it’s more about mass customisation than faceless generic services, personalisation not un-scalable digital walls. Fundamentally, it should benefit us all. Today, I don’t see enough innovation, bravery and drive to move it much beyond a digital veneer, and we’re in danger of creating a digital divide. Falling on the wrong side is going to be a very lonely place.

Every organisation has a choice – and not much time to make it – to continually rethink and re-engineer their business, or have their business model made redundant by someone they didn’t even see coming.

It’s really is that simple. And it’s happening right now.

Digital by default?

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