Just what is digital, exactly?

I’ve seen a few comments bouncing about Twitter and other places debating the meaning of the word digital, and why it hasn’t caught on in some places at all.

I’ve also seen some people saying that ‘digital’ is an unhelpful term, given the broad range of things it seems to describe.

I’d agree that it isn’t perfect, however, it’s what we’ve got. May as well make the most of it.

My definition of digital is:

The delivery of information, interactions and services over the internet.

However, that’s not all. It is also:

The approaches, skills and behaviour that have been popularised by digital projects.

Hence agility, responsiveness, user focus, and so on are all ‘digital’ even though they don’t specifically require the internet.

Your mileage may vary, of course, but this definition works for me, and hopefully for those I work with.

Why digital capability (or comfort) matters

keyboardI spend a lot of my time at the moment talking about digital capability. To my mind, this means the ability of people throughout an organisation to make the most of the opportunities offered by digital technology.

Capability is less about skills though, and more about confidence – or maybe comfort.

Sure, a certain amount of skill is involved. I sometimes refer to this as the ‘Alt-Tab’ test. If someone knows that Alt-Tab means to quickly flick between applications on a Windows based computer (it’s Command-Tab on a Mac), they are probably going to be ok in the new digital world.

To me though, digital capability is more about knowing where to look for the answers as it is knowing the answers in the first place. It’s about understanding why people might want to use a certain tool, rather than using it yourself. It’s about being curious, networked, agile, user centred and flexible rather than knowing how to use this app or that.

This matters because the landscape is changing. A few years ago, an average worker in an office might need to use four or five systems on a regular basis. Their email, the database for doing their jobs, Office, the intranet and perhaps an HR or other system.

These days though, people are being invited to Dropbox folders, Huddle projects, Asana task lists, Trello boards, Basecamps, Nings, Yammer networks, Google Docs and more. The numbers of different systems are growing and often the first people will have heard of them is when they are invited and expected to use them.

Nobody can learn in advance about systems they have never heard of! Instead, they need the confidence and comfort with digital tools that they can recognise how they probably work, and have the knowledge to know they are unlikely to break them just by having a go.

As I have written before, and will do again, the days of monolithic, one size fits all IT systems is over. As Euan Semple says in a recent blog post:

Building a technology ecology from small iterative deployments of specific tools, with a throw away mentality that allows more constant adaptation, driven by ongoing conversations with users is the only way to do technology efficiently.

In this new world, everyone needs to be comfortable with switching between apps, even when those apps are doing rather similar things, just in a slightly different way. This won’t come from learning each app one by one, but instead by understanding the principles of digital tools, and the underlying philosophy of how they work.

As is often the case, the online comic XKCD nails it:

tech_support_cheat_sheet

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Five for Friday – 14 March 2014

linksFive for Friday is WorkSmart’s weekly roundup of interesting stuff from the week’s reading.

  1. About change, defaults and disruption – “large organisations are racing against start-ups to stay relevant”. Great stuff from Anne McCrossan
  2. Creating a minimum viable product using WordPress – Chris Lema on using WordPress to throw together prototype services
  3. 5 More Unexpected Ways to Work Smarter, Not Harder – useful ideas. Thanks to Dan Slee for the link.
  4. Is it time to quit your job and launch that new start up? – nice video from Bethnal Green Ventures via the Nominet Trust
  5. Forrester argues piecemeal digital transformation won’t work – interesting research. Lovely quote: “Dabbling with digital isn’t the route to success”.
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