Why ‘digital’ isn’t the economy — avoid the common transformation pitfall

By Alun Probert

September 8, 2016

projection of digital meeting room, modern office

A recent article in the Harvard Business Review was claiming that the rise of “digital” in business has become so dominant, so overwhelming, that it is no longer just part of the economy, but, and I quote…

“Digital is the economy”.

Far be it from me to take on the highbrow experts at Harvard, but this is a dangerous notion. Digital is no more “the economy” than “electricity” is the economy. Not withstanding our good friends in the candle making industry, try running any business without light and power and you’ll see what I mean. Computers in particular are pretty limited after a few days without a wall socket to plug them in to.

The point about the power of “digital” to transform and change the world around us is indisputable. But just like some of the ICT vendors in my industry who promulgate the abstract and misleading notion of “Digital Government”, making a technology platform, or indeed any form of back end process your main focus in business is a poor and blinkered strategic choice.

Even in a pantomime horse, the back end never comes first.

Many of the businesses we work with are adopting digital tools to transform their services. We’ve helped turn passive websites into active broadcast channels that reach audiences far more elegantly than advertising on someone else’s platform to someone else’s audience. In the research field, we’ve advised on the use of “digital” to replace the clunky process of printing, posting and waiting for the return of questionnaires. And many of our clients are now demonstrating real leadership in their deployment of social media.

But they’re not doing it because it’s “digital”. They’re doing it because it’s better.

In all those cases, the starting point for our clients wasn’t creating a separate “digital” strategy. Instead, they deployed technology to meet their identified needs. In its purest form, true strategic planning in all sectors looks first at the business, its “product”, its challenges and its objectives. It assesses market and competitor activity and clarifies purpose. It’s only after coming to agreement on all of that that we start to quantify desired outcomes and select the potential tactical solutions to achieve them swiftly and cost effectively.

The fact that your competitor has a successful app is a terrible reason for creating another app. Software that the team doesn’t need and websites that nobody ever visits are as useless as advertising that no one sees or products that are overpriced. And apart from costing you money in terms of waste, the time spent trying to make these things somehow fit your plan consumes your most valuable asset, your time.

Of course you should be using digital to serve your customers better, to streamline your back end, or for any other value adding reason that aligns with your corporate objectives.

But if anyone in your organisation or one of your technology vendors (just saying!) suggests doing a “digital” strategy, please make sure you’ve got your business strategy written first. Remember the pantomime horse.

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