Many people use the term ‘digital’ without really considering what they mean. I see it all the time amongst senior executives. Possibly it is a term they use when they want to talk about IT, but don’t want to involve the IT function!
When I started out as a software engineer, IT and digital were synonymous. More recently we have seen it used in the context of Internet marketing and mobile apps. It might be said that digital is just a new term for ‘applied IT’, an abstraction that enables us to talk about new technologies in the context of business, rather than from a technical perspective. The emerging role of the Chief Digital Officer attests to this confusion over digital. Some are focused on the customer experience, some are in effect a liaison officer with the CIO, and others are charged with business transformation.
But for me digital is something deeper than applied IT. The digital age is much more than the industrial era amped up on ‘tech steroids’. Consequently, it concerns me when I see organisations simply using IT to improve the efficiency of their existing business processes, as if their industrial era business model just needs a little tweaking here and there.
For me, the digital age is mankind’s return to his true nature after several centuries of being treated like a cog in the factory machine. Automation and efficiency were (and still are) key drivers for industrial era organisations; humans serving only as ‘technology placeholders’. But now the technology has arrived, and the humans, in their capacity as process cogs, are no longer needed. Robotics and AI will feature heavily in this purge of the cog workers.
This is leaving many people fearful and bewildered. Many professionals follow a path whereby the first half of their career has a high ‘work to reward’ ratio. But traditionally over time that inverts, making for an economically delightful second career phase. These professionals are starting to realise that the first half of their career has gone to plan, but the second half looks doubtful.
Many of these highly-paid professionals are essentially factory placeholders. Despite their abilities, they have been doing work that is procedural, uncreative and with little degree of autonomy. In fact, many education systems are designed to produce people who have no problem with this. You might say that the output of such schools is to produce compliant factory cogs, whether the factory is lined with conveyor belts, or desks and meeting rooms.
Our schooling has consequently suppressed many of our natural anthropological drivers. In the industrial era, those workers who conformed to this model tended to be more successful than those who rejected it. However, it has become apparent that digital age companies such as Facebook and Google, are not looking for denatured factory workers. They are embracing talent that plays to our natural desires to be creative and curious.
There are those that are responding to the shift from the industrial to the digital age, by working harder and putting in more hours. But the old way of working is dying. Being a turbo-charged process worker will simply lead to burn out, if redundancy doesn’t come first.
Those of us who can reclaim our humanity will thrive in the digital age.