Digital transformation. Digital strategy. Digital leadership. Digital enterprise. Digital customer journey.
It seems the list of things that have gone digital is unending and remarkably broad.
Underlying all of these intertwined digital concepts? Unquestionably, some kind of technology.
Just one problem: nobody agrees on just what constitutes digital technology. And without a grasp on what technologies are digital – or more to the point, what technologies are not digital – we’ve built our entire digital edifice on a foundation of sand.
Ones and Zeroes
We can all agree that the broadest definition of digital technology would be technology that uses ones and zeroes to represent data. After all, bits – aka binary digits – are where we got the word digital in the first place.
Using this definition, digital technology launched on Valentine’s Day in 1946, with the introduction of ENIAC.
Yes, digital technology is 1940s technology. More memory, bigger storage, and faster networks have multiplied the speed and power of ENIAC untold billions of times over – but by this definition of digital technology, there’s nothing particularly new or special, just more of the same. Move right along, nothing to see here.
The obvious conclusion from this argument is that we mean something different by digital technology today than we did in the 1940s. Not just more and faster, but intrinsically different somehow. Otherwise digital wouldn’t be on the tip of every desperate executive’s tongue 71 years later.
Let us not chuck out our venerable bits-based definition of digital so fast, however. During those seven decades, many technologies have navigated the transition from analog to digital – forming periodic digital transformations that may seem quaint today, but were disruptive at the time.
Transistor radios hit the market in the 1950s, but digital radio technology didn’t roll out until the 1960s as communication satellites became the disruptive technology of their day.
Digital broadcasting, however, had to wait until the 1990s, thus spurring the rise of digital radio receivers and digital televisions in the 2000s.
Meanwhile, compact disk (CD) technology brought digital audio to the masses in the 1980s, but let us not forget the brief heyday of digital vinyl LPs in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Clearly, digital technology has been causing disruptions all along. Again – nothing particularly new here.
Narrowing Down the Definition
Digital communications satellites, digital broadcasting, digital TVs, and CDs were all disruptive digital technologies of their day – and all essentially represented moving from an analog technology to one dependent on moving bits around.
When we use the phrase digital technology today, however, we’re generally not referring to the transition from analog to digital. After all, enterprises have been pushing bits around for most of the seven decades since ENIAC. We’re still missing the proper context.
Perhaps the missing context is the customer?
Given today’s customer-focused context for digital, many people jump to the opposite extreme from our bit-pushing definition of digital technology. For them, digital technology is technology that end-users directly interact with, including both the hardware and the software.
This definition of digital technology may be narrower than our more general one, but it’s still rather broad. In this context, smartphones and their apps are at the eye of the digital technology storm, but the term encompasses any software-based technology with a user interface, from microwave ovens to digital signage.
This definition of digital technology as user-facing, software-based technology is perhaps the most prevalent definition in use today.
A recent Harvard Business Review report, for example, defines digital organizations as “organizations where most of the products depend upon digital technologies.” And while the report doesn’t specifically define digital technologies, it’s clear from the overall context of the report that it is using the narrower definition above.
In fact, you can find examples of people either explicitly or implicitly relying on this definition of digital technology all over the digital landscape.
What do most digital consultancies do? Typically, build web sites and mobile apps. What do most digital initiatives entail? Putting better software-based technology into the hands of users. And so on, ad nauseam.
The Problem with Narrow Definitions
You may be thinking to yourself at this point in the Cortex that this narrower definition of digital technology represents the modern definition. Well, sorry to disappoint – there’s a massive problem with this definition: what it excludes.
For example, here is a list of modern, innovative technologies that would fall outside our narrow definition of digital, because none of them are user-facing.
Blockchain. Flash memory. Virtualization. Integration-as-a-Service. And while we’re at it, let’s throw in an entire category of open source projects, like Apache Hadoop and Apache Spark.
All of these technologies unquestionably involve moving bits around, so they obviously fall under our seven-decade old, broader definition of digital. That’s not up for debate.
But none of these technologies are user-facing – at least, without adding some kind of visualization layer to them. And if we do that, the visualization layer – not the underlying technology – would be the digital component.
All of a sudden, we’re on shaky ground here. Clearly, blockchain and the rest are all digital technologies! And while we’re at it, cognitive computing, deep learning, and dozens of others whose user-facingness is debatable.
Fair enough, we need to widen our definition. Other than the bit-pushing part of the story, then, what do our list of potentially excluded technologies all have in common?
They are innovative. So, is ‘innovative’ part of our definition of digital technology?
Frying pan, meet fire. If all we mean by digital technology is innovative technology – and to be sure, many vendors do – then we have just committed the mother of all digital-washing faux pas.
True, much of the innovation in enterprise technology is digital in some fashion, but on the great Venn diagram of technology concepts, digital technology and innovative technology only overlap. Neither one is included in the other.
We have to do better.
The Intellyx Take: Putting the Customer at the Center
The problem with our narrower definition of digital technology isn’t simply that it’s too narrow. The problem is that user-facing doesn’t encompass the true essence of digital.
At Intellyx, we define ‘digital’ as customer preferences and behavior drive enterprise technology decisions. The customer comes first, and the only reason technology is involved at all is because customers demand technology-based products and services from the companies they do business with.
Furthermore, the only way traditional, hierarchically-organized enterprises can rise to the customer-centric challenge of digital is via a comprehensive, end-to-end reorganization.
Instead of customer-facing people, processes, and technology living in one silo while back-office people, processes, and technology live in another – with untold numbers of silos in between – digital transformation requires a cross-cutting rethink of the entire organizational model.
Given the observations of Conway’s Law, wherever our organizational model goes, so too goes our technology.
Digital technology need not fall exclusively in the category of ‘user-facing.’ In fact, any piece of technology, regardless how old it is or where it falls in the enterprise IT environment, is a ‘digital technology’ if it aligns with the customer-centric goal of digital.
From mainframes and middleware to cloud computing and the Internet of Things, all enterprise technology might qualify as digital technology.
What, then, about our list of excluded technologies? The answer of course, is that all of these might very well be digital technologies as well – as long as the end-customer is driving the application of the technology.
On the other hand, it’s certainly possible for a user-facing piece of technology to fall outside our updated definition of digital technology if it doesn’t align properly with the goals of digital.
Yes, the same mobile application, the very same piece of technology, may or may not qualify as digital technology depending upon how a company deploys it.
If this context-sensitive aspect of the definition makes you uncomfortable, then all I have to say to you is: welcome to digital transformation.
After all, there is a bigger picture here – digital as a term is itself inherently vague and dynamic. Furthermore, digital transformation is such a comprehensive, deeply chaotic set of internal and external disruptions that simply labeling all such transformations as digital is a confusing oversimplification.
Compared to digital transformation itself, therefore, digital technology is relatively straightforward – and furthermore, the distinctions among various technology innovations aren’t particularly important as long as customers are driving those innovations.
Copyright © Intellyx LLC. Intellyx publishes the Agile Digital Transformation Roadmap poster, advises companies on their digital transformation initiatives, and helps vendors communicate their agility stories. As of the time of writing, none of the organizations mentioned in this article are Intellyx customers. Image credit: dailyinvention and public domain.