What do we really mean by Digital?

by Mike Stopforth: Entrepreneur and investor. Sometimes writer and speaker. Exploring how we lead, and how we should lead, in an increasingly complex world.
Is there a word in the business lexicon that can be interpreted more ways than “digital”?

Is digital a thing? A set of things?

Is it a way of doing things? Is it something you can buy or build?

Is it an ideal, or belief, or set of values?

And is this an important question to ask? I would argue yes, extremely so. There are too many decisions being made and too much money being spent in the pursuit of “digital” for us not to interrogate it.

There is of course a technical definition for digital. describes digital as electronic technology that generates, stores, and processes data in terms of two states: positive and non-positive. Is this what we mean by digital in context of phrases like digital marketing or digital transformation? I don’t think it is.

Digital certainly means technology. Of course, not all technology is digital (a wheelbarrow is technology, but not digital in any way), but it is safe to assume that everything we call digital has some technological component to it. Is that all it is? It can’t be. If that were the case, then digitally transforming a business would simply be a case of upgrading to the latest cloud computing solution and buying everyone shiny new laptops. Digital is hardware, but that is not all it is.

Hardware is useless without software. Digital is software, too. Techopedia describes software as a generic term that relates to a set of instructions or programmes that instruct a computer to do specific tasks, i.e. all the functional aspects of a computer that do not refer to its physical components (hardware).

Hardware is useless without a source of power. If I can’t turn my mobile phone on, it’s basically an expensive paperweight. Hardware is also useless to its users without the existence of software. I need software installed on the phone so that I have some interface to make sense and use of the hardware.

Importantly, I don’t need to be an engineer or a programmer to understand the value of hardware and software. I don’t need to understand the inner workings of a combustion engine to make use of a car. So digital is hardware and software, but that still doesn’t explain the full picture.

Something quite magical happens when we combine digital hardware and software.

This is what we mean by digital...

When we say digital, we are referring to products, solutions and experiences that were impossible or even unimaginable without the existence of digital hardware and digital software.

Booking a room in a stranger’s house in a city you’ve never visited before without uttering or writing a single word, and paying for it without holding money or even seeing that person, is an experience that would not only have been considered impossible a few decades back, but indistinguishable from magic.

Hailing a ride in a complete stranger’s car, speaking to a device that uses artificial intelligence to interpret your needs, immersing yourself in a version of reality rendered by software and enabled by a headset, using satellites to navigate your way around a new neighbourhood – these are all experiences that were not only barely imaginable a few years back, but indistinguishable from magic.

Digital disruption is a phrase we use for products, solutions and experiences that are created using digital hardware and software that fundamentally shift our paradigms and assumptions. Digital transformation is a phrase we use to describe a process of equipping a complex organisation for adaptability to stay relevant for employees and customers whose experiences of the world have been changed by digital products, solutions and experiences. Digital marketing is a phrase we use to describe ways to communicate with and sell to those customers using products, solutions and experiences that were indistinguishable from magic just a few years ago.

Being digital, then, is not about acquiring hardware or software. It’s not about upgrading infrastructure. It’s a shift in attitude. It’s being critical of the status quo, and specifically of legacy thinking that worked in an analogue time. It’s moving digital from a department to a strategic imperative. It’s building digital literacy and capability in the most senior decision-makers in your business.

In an increasingly digital world, being digital is simply being able to adapt.

Useful resources:
Mike Stopforth
Entrepreneur, writer and speaker. Host of the One-Eyed Man podcast: Exploring how we should lead in an increasingly complex world.
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