Over the last couple of years, the word ‘digital’ is appearing increasingly in the workplace. The term is coming up in conversations about transformation, skills, staff retention, functions, or disciplines, and is often used more loosely in cultural or strategic contexts.
On a personal level, I am not convinced of the value or meaning of the word digital in the workplace. It might be that I have not understood the reason it is being used or perhaps I don’t understand the decision to adopt the word into strategic or operational processes when the reason for its introduction has not been communicated effectively by the organisation.
Or perhaps it might just be the wrong word to use in some contexts?
So, what is ‘Digital’?
On its own, it is a technical term for signals of data, the display of a clock or the digits on our hands. So, in the workplace context, on its own, the word suggests very little. And perhaps that is the source of my confusion. As soon as I link the term to another word, such as skills or culture, it appears to take on different meanings; for example: –
- ‘Digital’ Skills
The Government’s Essential Skills Framework suggests skills that include using computer devices to communicate, handle information and content, transacting in the online world, and problem-solving. Do any of these skills present a different training or adoption challenge to organisations when designing interventions? After all, I have been educating employees on the use of technology and how to communicate for decades.
- ‘Digital’ Culture
The GDS Group suggests that such a culture can break hierarchy, speed up work, encourage innovation and attract new talent or retain current employees. This is regardless of whether technology is involved or not. For most of my working life, the aspiration of any company has been to encourage all those things. There is a danger that the overuse of technical terms means we abandon those aspirations in any non-technical context.
- ‘Digital’ Development
Big Nerd Group identifies a goal of product development is to create a useful application that benefits end-users and provides value for your business. After delivering business process change projects over the last 20 years, I can hand on heart state that our objective was always to introduce something useful. Today, we tend to source ‘useful’ off the shelf products and services. Methodologies have changed at a pace to deliver, adapt, and encourage the use of applications but the aspiration of any development should remain the same.
There are other situations where we could explore this further, but I hope by now you understand the source of my concerns at the overuse of a word that essentially adds no value.
Am I somehow disadvantaged by not understanding how the term relates to me?
Are we Digital?
I have worked in the technology sector for decades, delivering change to my organisations and working with various applications and services. I do not yet recognise that I have adopted a different approach to the work I do today, as we find the now ubiquitous word coming to the fore.
Perhaps that is because digital is a term that needs a definition and description that everyone involved knows and understands. If I take the three contexts above as situations I have worked in, I cannot seriously suggest major shifts in the way I approach (or work) within those contexts because of the inclusion of a particular ‘word du jour’.
That is not to say the sector is not changing. It is, at a pace. We need to adapt to change at an unprecedented rate, and as we adopt more cloud and hosted applications, the challenges change. The pace of change that suppliers introduce to those services means traditional learning and education techniques are no longer applicable. But for me, digital terminology is not a new trigger, it is the ever-present myriad of reasons that change happens, whether technical or not.
Is Digital Transformational?
Citrix UK has defined digital transformation as “the strategic adoption of digital technologies. It’s used to improve processes and productivity, deliver better customer and employee experiences, manage business risk, and control costs. Digital transformation represents numerous tools, solutions, and processes.”
I have worked on several transformation programmes and cannot remember one that solely concentrated on technology. There is always a human factor in any change that is not always directly linked to the technology and there are people and process changes required completely outside of the technology change itself.
More recently I have been helping organisations adopt Microsoft 365 apps and services, and whilst the products are technical in nature, the primary changes we need to consider are behaviour and skills development, and the skills usually required are not solely technical. For someone to really adopt M365, they need more cognitive skills, self-reliance, understanding of their job in the context of how an app can be used and the need to be curious. Whilst triggered by technology, I would suggest these are not truly transformational, but more evolutionary.
What I have found is the increasing use of a word, any word, can seem like an attempt to communicate a concept that means too many things to too many people and can lose its message in translation.
If we consider digital in the context of culture, are we sure everyone shares the same vision of what that means to the team, function, and more importantly the customers of what we deliver? Does our use of the word imply a different service to our customer or user?
If we think in terms of skills, are we adding any value to the learning opportunity? Skills are skills, and we do not need to imply any potential limitations to the skills needed. Adjustments may be needed to our interventions to ensure staff are empowered to learn what they need to do their job in a fast-evolving environment.
If I am any indication, I suspect the confusion surfaces in the minds of people applying their own perceptions of what is meant by digital. This may be down to:
- The organisation or function adopting the term may have done so to deliver a perceived advantage without defining the word and what it means to the product or service being delivered.
- The same organisation has not communicated that definition to all who are involved. Whether it be the team members who are then failing to inspire others of the reasons, or the team failing to communicate the meaning of the term to their customers.
and this may stifle development of thinking towards a technical context. This may end up with you confusing or losing the message altogether along the way. In some situations, it may ultimately undermine the nature of the change you are hoping to influence if you are not understood by everyone involved.
So, for me, it may be ok to stay confused about the term and not get too worried that I am missing something critical to the way I do my job. However, helping people understand how to change the way they work and influence change in organisations does not need to be considered in the digital context. We just need to carry on considering the evolving nature of the operative word, ‘change.’
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