Digital is an overused, underdefined term; but is it just a buzzword, or is there a core of intuitive meaning that, whilst hard to express, is valuable and worth exploring?  In this article I will attempt to prime your intuition about what digital means to you, and argue that data is the most important component of “being digital”! 

As a word “Digital” has become like the word “strategy”. Whilst it is hard to agree a concrete definition, it is a genuinely rich and meaningful concept. Because of the lack of a strong definition though it is often overused – strategic plan vs plan or “Do you have a strategy?” Vs” Do you have a plan?” Is it any wonder that some of us shudder when we hear people asking, “do you have a digital strategy”? Before we explore what digital is, I want to look at the ways we might be misusing it. 

Digital is just the opposite of Analogue

Sometimes when we speak about digital, we’re highlighting that it isn’t analogue ; that we are talking about computers and not paper. Looked at it this way, digital transformation has been around for a long time. If we think about a paper accounting ledger, then 1985 when the first version of Excel came out, is the epoch for digital transformation. It provided people with a way to carry out computations automatically and accurately on tabulated data. Something that hitherto had to be done manually, line by line. This unlocked the power of automation, saving people time and creating greater accuracy. What is interesting then is that digital and digital transformation have only achieved buzzword status in the last few years, and in a lot of cases, the transformation being sought is to free people from Excel? 

Digital is just a different word for Technology

I have found myself countless times uttering the phrase “Digital Technology”. No sooner has it left my mouth and I’m regretting it. It feels awkward and clunky. Digital uses technology. It relies on it to exist. You can’t run a spreadsheet without a computer. There is a hierarchy which the phrase digital technology doesn’t respect.  In this sense, when we talk about digital on its own, we are transcending the concept of technology. Technology is the engine hidden under the bonnet of your car. Digital is the ability to use that car to take you where you want to go. When we are talking about “digital” we no longer need to know what is going under the bonnet, and we can focus on the business outcomes that come from owning a certain piece of technology. 

Digital is just a different word for Web

I have been in a few conversations recently where we have started talking about “digital”. After a few moments, I realise that in fact digital is being used, in a rather hand-wavy way, to talk about a website. When talking about digital, there seems to be broad acceptance that it has something to with the web. The idea of installing an application that you can only access on your desktop device feels “old”, almost dare I say it “analogue”. Whereas a web application that can be securely accessed anywhere via a browser feels modern, it’s “digital”. Yet, websites and web-based information systems, like customer relationship management tools, have been around for decades, ever since the days where we were harking the dawn of Web 2.0 . So, is it really the web that makes a service “digital”? I think not, and I have observed in several organisations, the rise of “The Digital Team”. This team sits outside the traditional IT function and is focussed on procuring web-based software-as-a-service products to provide the tools to power business functions. The fact that these teams are called “digital” and live outside of IT strengthens the idea that digital is about abstracting the technology and focussing on the business outcomes. Yes, this functionality is delivered through a website, but that doesn’t make it digital. 

Introducing your digital twin

The missing ingredient so far in this discussion is data. To help understand why data is important, I want to introduce the concept of “The Digital Twin”. This is a datacentric representation of a real-world thing. My smart watch allows me to create a digital twin of my health. I wear my watch all day long. Whilst it is there, it is quietly capturing data about me. It periodically checks my pulse rate, my blood oxygen levels, and how much time I spend sitting at my desk. Data however is of no use unless you do something with it. A digital twin makes use of the DIKW pyramid to use data to drive behaviour.  

At the bottom of this pyramid is the data. The minute-by-minute heart rate, the number of times that I have moved in a particular way. My smart watch uses this data to create information. It calculates how many calories it thinks I have burnt for instance. It then presents this in a way that provides me with knowledge about myself. I have burnt less calories today than I did yesterday, and I haven’t stood up enough, compared to normal. It then assumes that I want to be healthier today than yesterday and provides the wisdom to nudge me to make better decisions, periodically telling me that I should get up, and giving me a pat on the back (well actually a vibrate on the wrist) to say well done and reinforce the behaviour. In this way my digital twin, allows me to see how well I am doing at being healthy, and helps me to be healthier.  

You can put this concept into the context of tracking membership engagement. Your customer relationship management tool and website capture data about your members, like how often they click on a link or attend an event. This is used to create information about how engaged they are, often expressed as a score. You then create knowledge by categorising users into personas based on their level of engagement, for example, those who are highly engaged. Finally, you can make decisions about how you engage with these users to achieve an outcome, for example inviting highly engaged members to a special fundraising event. 

Conclusion and “so what”

Digital is not about replacing paper with technology. In fact, it is not really about technology at all. Digital has left technology behind. It has abstracted it into something that someone else worries about in the background. Digital is about creating tools that power business processes. It does so in a way that makes use of the web, but only in so much as it is the most convenient way for people to access it. What makes these tools truly digital is the availability and use of data. This allows us to build tools that help us to follow better processes and help us to make better decisions during these processes.