Good definitions of Digital are hard to come by, but two from CIO UK columnists are worth revisiting and cover both the jovial and more serious attempts to define a term that means everything and nothing at the same time.
Ade McCormack's semi-joke runs that digital is a term used by the boardroom when they want to talk about IT and not involve the CIO. He quips that it is a semi-joke for two reasons; for some there is an uncomfortable truth to his words, while when he delivers the line in speaker appearances at conferences only half of the audience tends to laugh.
More recently when discussing the Bimodal IT fallacy, former JLT Group CIO Ian Cohen wrote that digital was connecting the back to the front, the front to the back and all points in between to seamlessly work with customers, suppliers, partners and even competitors.
The latest to add to your records comes from Ian Cox in his new book Digital Uncovered - It takes a lot more than technology to succeed in the digital world. [Disclosure - I was involved in the editing of this book so please appreciate this column's subjectivity.]
Beware Digital Washing
A tool for CEOs, boards, NEDs and senior executives, Cox describes some inconvenient digital truths and proposes an organisational strategy of balancing the long-term requirements of transforming for digital with shorter term needs in order to stay relevant in shifting and disrupted markets.
As well as investigating different definitions and what digital might mean to your organisation, Cox explains what digital definitely is not:
"Digital is more than just applying technology to make an existing business model or process more efficient."
Cox describes those that break the above rule as being guilty of digital washing in a similar vein to the term cloud washing - a phrase coined to describe how IT suppliers would market existing systems that were sold under traditional licensing models but which happened to be hosted on a remote server as a cloud service. Concerning digital, the author asks how many companies, CEOs and executive leadership teams are really transforming their organisations for the digital world, and how many are simply rebadging existing initiatives as digital to give the impression they are doing the right things?
One of the digital truths described by Cox is how digital disruption will affect every organisation and industry - if is not having an impact already. As such those that are not willing to self-disrupt, even when it means cannibalising the most core parts of their business, risk the danger of new technology-enabled business models rendering a company's existing methods as redundant.
Time to revisit your Mission Statement
A starting point of embedding digital thinking in the DNA of the business involves precisely zero technology and grows out from the often-maligned mission statement.
While these can be dismissed by some as worthless - and occasionally meaningless - streams of buzzwords used in PR activity and buried in a corporate About Us page on a website, a well-crafted mission statement is able to describe an organisation's main purpose in one sentence and simple language which hopefully focuses on the needs of the customer.
If your organisation's is inside-out (i.e., we manufacture and sell building materials) rather than outside-in (we provide services to help create, maintain and improve buildings) you are being constrained by blinkers which could be holding you back from business model innovation, developing digital offerings and providing real digital enablement. Digital, after all, is a means of delivery rather than an end in itself. In an extreme example highlighted by Cox, shortly before Blockbuster filed for bankruptcy in 2010, in its final annual report to the US Securities and Exchange Commission its lengthy mission still involved stores, mail, vending kiosks and 'neighborhood expertise' at a time when its customers had long since moved on.
Mission statements also cropped up during the 2016 CIO Summit when Chief Digital Officer at NHS Blood and Transplant, Aaron Powell, described the public sector body's mission statement as a key weapon for pitching concepts, projects and new ideas to the board. If what you are trying to do, whether that involves technology or not, meets the mission and purpose of the organisation, you will have the backing of the board, Powell explained - while a powerful mission statement is also a useful tool to inspire your team to think about the best way to fulfil its purpose.
Perhaps it's time for all of us to revisit the mission statements and purposes of our organisations, question them, and test whether it promotes the innovative thinking that will enable it to compete in the digital world?
Ian Cox's book 'Digital Uncovered - It takes more than technology to succeed in the digital world' is available on Amazon.