What is digital strategy?

what-is-digital-strategyQuiz time

Before I answer the question, ‘what is digital strategy?’, let’s start with a quick quiz. What do the following have in common?
  • Mobile phone.
  • Airplane.
  • Pianoforte.
  • Digital strategy.
Each of these terms has an in-built degree of redundancy. For example, are there any other types of plane beyond airplanes? ‘Plane’ covers it. And when the majority of phones are mobile, why do we need to use the term mobile. Similarly, in the digital age all strategies are digital strategies.

But aren’t you a digital strategist?

A little bit of research on me and my branding would reveal that I am guilty of flying in the face of my own logic and calling myself a digital strategist. So, am I not to be bundled in with people whose vocabulary acquisition peaked in the sixties? Well actually that is almost true (baby). The fact is that ‘digital strategy’ is in vogue, so I will play along for search engine optimisation purposes. No sense in being intellectually-grounded at the cost of being economically-invisible. Such is the nature of having a Brownian motion / SEO-optimised lean start-up career.

Digital age strategy

From a purist’s perspective, my branding is guilty of yet another seemingly reality-denial crime. I use the term strategist. Strategy, as we know it (1. plan for ages, 2. eventually document something, 3. refer to it from time to time, when it suits you) is dead.

Back in the day, the leaders would make a strategic decision, for example, “Let’s build a pyramid. It will take a few years and require a lot of stone and labour.” Today, given the unprecedented volatility and uncertainty, that sort of task-based approach is not possible. When it comes to strategic decisions, business is more like a fighter pilot dog fight, where only now matters, and situational awareness is paramount. Again, strategy as we have known it through the industrial era is dead. Perhaps it more a case of business strategy converging with military strategy?

So in summary, digital strategy equals organisational strategy which now equals military strategy.

Management consulting 2.0

One would now expect the top management consultancies to be hanging around the gates of Sandhurst and West Point for the purposes of hoovering up the freshly-minted military strategists. But oh no. Instead, they have decided to recruit funky app developers, and chosen to interpret digital, as the interesting end of enterprise IT. This move down the value stack into the world of tech service firms and IT departments is in my view a mistake. There is of course a demand for this, but it is likely too low-ticket for the big players to operate without radical restructuring.

Strategy 2.0

Even for organisations that can operate with enough semblance of certainty to continue with the old school approach to strategy, having both a digital strategy and a business strategy is a recipe for disaster. Check out my post, If you are a little unclear on the term ‘digital’. Such a move is a recipe for creating fault lines across your organisation.
Similarly, this throws into question the need for a Chief Digital Officer (CDO), even if we choose to interpret it as the role responsible for digital matters, rather than the person responsible for digital marketing. Digital is not a department. It cannot be abdicated to someone who ‘has a clue’. Digital from a leadership perspective is a competence. And in the digital age all leaders need to be digitally competent.

What is digital strategy?

For me, when someone asks, ‘ what is digital strategy ’, the response should simply be ‘strategy’. If the person looks perplexed I might elaborate with ‘strategy for organisations operating in the digital age’, and not just ‘strategy covering how to capitalise on new technology developments’. Because the latter definition should be reserved for IT strategy.

A meaningless term

So, digital strategy is really just a meaningless term that has likely emerged because many leaders, whilst not really understanding the term digital, have seen it used in a sufficient number of business and inflight magazines to think it is something that is thus strategically important. By accident they are right. The problem is they don’t understand what is really meant by digital. If they compartmentalise digital into a boardroom agenda item, or even a business function, they will not be equipped to surf the digital tsunami coming their / our way.

The need for digital literacy

Digital literacy at the leadership level is much more than recognising the need to move the enterprise apps into the cloud or having a device-responsive corporate website. It is even much more than understanding the power of new technologies and data to create value. A focus on the digital age and not digital is a step towards embracing the mind-set needed to thrive in this post-industrial era.

If you are not strapped in and braced for a dogfight, you had best check your rear.

A couple of good books on the subject include:
And my most recent book: