What is digital? Snake oil or panacea

What is digital? Snake oil or panacea

Digital is a catalyst for business improvement and innovation based around technology, a mind-set and a methodology which remove physical limitations in reaching and serving customers.

Digital needs a definition

Does your firm have a digital strategy? Have your operations been transformed to the power of digital? Are you management ranks filled with digital natives? Do you have the digital advantage and sit amongst the digirati? What are your plans for bringing on board a Chief Digital Officer?

From the big strat’ firms like McKinsey through to specialists like CACI there are numerous offers for digital consulting, transformation and strategy. But what is “digital” in the business sense and how can executives ensure they are not pursuing the latest management fad? Allow me – a Head of Digital Consulting – to open the kimono and explain in honest terms how I define digital.

Clouded in mystery

One of the dark arts of consulting is to sell a concept so broad and nebulous that no one can quite pin down what it means. In the book Dangerous Company, which examines bad practices of consultancies, the case study is given of Figgie, a manufacturing firm, that spent millions with consultants developing a “world class” capability. New machinery was purchased. Plants relocated. Processes re-engineered. Staff were hired, replaced and trained. When Figgie investigated the outcome of this work they discovered that the “world class” programme had been a disaster that would eventually lead to the downfall of an American institution. It was an example of consultants running amok with a loose vision and too much freedom.

Without solid definitions, “digital” initiatives could prove to be just as dangerous for enterprises as “world class” transformation was for Figgie.

Digital’s depth and breadth in business

I suspect that the lack of a firm definition for digital is due to it’s many applications that are built upon similar technologies or principles. An e-commerce application can be built using exactly the same technology stack as a solution designed for business reporting. The principle of instantly connecting people regardless of physical distance applies equally to Facebook and to internal communication systems (e.g. Yammer or Chatter).

Perhaps this breadth of opportunity in digital explains why many talk about digital transformation without clearly defining what digital really means.

For me, digital is made up of four components; a mind-set, an approach, technology and the outcome.

1. The Mind-Set

The digital mentality embodies speed and agility, a willingness to fail, an openness to new opportunities, a belief in the power of networks, and a thirst for data.

2. An Approach

Driven by the digital mind-set, the approach delivers incremental improvements in customer value. These improvements are born from innovation, trials, monitoring, open feedback and fast decision making.

3. Technology

The technology serves the approach and mind-set. Powered by the internet the technology is ubiquitous; i.e. it can work with any web-enabled device and channel. It captures rich-data to monitor interaction and satisfaction. Integration allows the technology to quickly connect with other systems and user devices to create seamless experiences.

4. Outcomes

Digital initiatives deliver provable results.

By capturing data and self-optimising, digital can achieve it’s stated ambitions to improve business efficiency, reach new customers, create new business models and improve life for customers or citizens.


Are there aspects of digital that I’ve missed or have I stretched digital beyond it’s proper bounds?

Whilst I don’t think there will be a consensus around any one definition, I do think it’s important that the business community understand what is meant by digital in order for them to avoid becoming lost in digital or alternatively not scratching the surface of what it could do for a business.

Feedback and debate is welcome in the comments below…

Further Reading…

David Sealey is a trusted adviser to senior executives on getting the most from their investment in digital and data. David created Storm81 as a place to share his passion for business, digital technologies, multichannel marketing and everything else around these topics.

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