What is Digital?

Self-service - a key trend in digital projects
Self-service – a key trend in digital projects

Many organisations are finding themselves asking “What is Digital?” It’s a difficult question which sounds easy at first. After all, isn’t everything that we do today that involves electronics, digital in some shape or form?

If an organisation has a CTO (Chief Technology Officer), why does it also need a CDO (Chief Digital Officer)? If an organisation already has an IT department, why does it need a digital one too?

So what is digital?

To me, digital is a mindset. In the 1990’s we’d have called it a paradigm. It’s all about thinking slightly differently to classic IT.

Classic IT built large technologies – whether that’s a mainframe or data centre or rolled out a new software package. Classic IT was often technology led – “Here’s the new package for our department.” Before that announcement there will have been several months or even years of gathering user requirements.

But the new, digital, world is much more nimble. Often, business departments will lead the way for sourcing new solutions. Yes, the enterprise needs to have a framework in place to make sure all new platforms can coexist, and have some rules for what can and can’t be done – often for security, regulatory or compliance reasons. But still, systems today must be more flexible to cope with the fast pace of change within most industries.

As a result, here are my top seven attributes for what makes a system digital:

  1. Business focussed rather than technology. This is absolutely key. It’s the opposite to “build it and they will come”. Note that this is also different to spending months or years getting the requirements from every Tom, Dick and Harry within the organisation. There are mature techniques such as Agile development to help develop products with minimal (which is different to none) up front requirements capture.
  2. Self-service. This is a key trend within large organisations at the moment. Transforming legacy applications to self-service tools is one of the biggest cost-saving, morale improving systems possible. It’s also relatively straightforward to calculate the ROI (Return On Investment) of the new system. Google, Amazon, eBay, Microsoft and even the UK Government have transformed industries by providing self-service tools to staff, partners and customers that weren’t even thought of 20 years ago.
  3. Try stuff. Whether your organisation calls it “Fail fast” or “Learn quickly” (the organisational barometer of optimism vs pessimism), it’s important to try new features and functionality on new digital platforms. Multivariate testing (also called A/B testing) is important for all groups of users and departments.
  4. Regular releases. It’s not good enough to have a release every six months. It’s not good enough to take systems down for several hours to rollout the latest version. Digital systems have many, regular releases, usually with no or at worst case, minimal downtime. This requires excellent technical and infrastructure architecture, and leadership which sets the quality bar extremely high. It is achievable – Amazon performs a software deployment every 16 seconds, across a very large, distributed technical estate.
  5. I often describe digital interfaces as ‘beautiful’. Digital interfaces must be easy, or a joy to use. I use the analogy of old Nokia phones were easy to use, but when the iPhone was released, it made using it a joy to use. Digital systems must be intuitive. The antithesis of a digital interface is one which requires a user manual. A billion people didn’t read a manual on how to use Facebook.
    I remember going on a training course in 2005 to learn how to use an Internet ad serving tool. Using Facebook and Twitter’s ad system is a joy to use, with real-time user targeting graphical features. And digital interfaces are constantly collecting data on how real world users are actually using the system, to further improve usability and drive further usage or sales. Digital interfaces employ A/B or multivariate testing practices for comparing different interface tools.
  6. Digital tools offer useful dashboards. Most platforms collect vast amounts of data, whether explicitly through form fields, or implicitly through geolocation tags or IP addresses, but also time of the day and so on. Best practices in digital tools provide real time feedback through graphical representation of the data available.
  7. Digital platforms are often easier to integrate with other applications. Best practice digital apps expose APIs to enable data and functionality to be made available across systems. When this is done well, sometimes even seemingly large pieces of functionality can be implemented quickly and at lower cost.

There are also a couple of optional attributes for digital platforms:

  1. Multi lingual capability. Even if your new platform may not need to be available in more than one language in the foreseeable future, it’s always worth designing the platform with a dictionary or language pack in mind. This includes implementing an interface which can support right to left languages such as Hebrew and Arabic.
  2. Multi device. This may seem contentious as an optional attribute, but we’re still finding many organisations where desktops are still the only interface which needs to be supported. Given the option (or the budget constraint), for enterprises where desktops reign supreme, I would choose a decent API over a mobile interface because at least with a good API, launching an app for a different interface can be done easier and cheaper at a later date. For consumer use, mobile support is a mandatory requirement.

I have omitted “Cloud” as a requirement or even optional requirement for digital platforms. It really doesn’t matter where the platform is hosted as long as the hosting arrangements don’t negatively affect the other attributes.

And finally, digital doesn’t need to be consumer or client facing. It applies just as much to internal systems – whether it’s an employee holiday booking system or a warehouse inventory tool.

From now on, look at your internal and client facing systems, and think about applying the digital attributes above. Welcome to digital transformation.

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