Are We Thinking About Digital All Wrong?

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I want to let you in on a secret — writing a book is a scary experience. You pour your heart into it and then wait for the reaction when it is published. You can be certain of only one thing: You will be criticized.

My book Digital Adaptation will soon be officially released, and I know a lot of clever people are going to disagree with what I have written. They are going to argue that I focus too much on digital and its characteristics and its implications and its impact on business and on the way we work and organize teams, when ultimately digital is just a tool.

If Digital Is Just A Tool

If digital is just a tool in our business arsenal, then it fundamentally alters how we approach this new medium. It will even redefine what your job should be. If digital is just a tool, we might not even need Web professionals. I can tell you now that from a certain point of view they are right to criticize me.

In fact, yes, at their most fundamental level, digital technologies such as the Web and mobile are just tools like any other we work with. Like electricity or the printing press, we can use these tools to achieve a business objective. For example, to persuade prospective customers to buy a product, you might get a brochure printed. This would require both the power of electricity and a printing press. Alternatively, you could build a website, send an email or create a Facebook page. Digital is just another tool in your arsenal.


Is digital really just a tool? Digital challenges companies to rethink and adapt their existing practices, and usually it’s not enough to see it as a tool alone.

Many argue that viewing digital in this way will shape a person’s thinking about how digital can be used and referred to. Suddenly, having a digital strategy or even a digital team sounds ridiculous. You wouldn’t have a brochure strategy or a team dedicated to managing electricity. Why, then, do you need a digital strategy or a digital team?

They go on to argue the dangers associated with thinking of digital as more than a tool. If we treat digital as special in some way, then we risk isolating it from the broader business. The digital team ends up doing its own thing, rather than helping the entire company make use of the tool.

If we create a separate digital strategy, they argue, then the danger is that, rather than helping to achieve the overall business strategy, we would distract or confuse it. Surely, the argument goes, devising a business strategy that draws on digital when appropriate makes more sense.

These are all completely valid points, and I entirely understand their logic. However, I passionately argue that we do need separate digital strategies and that we also need empowered digital teams. I take this approach because I believe that digital is more than another tool in our business arsenal.

Digital Is More Than A Tool

I strongly believe that describing digital as a tool diminishes its profound impact on the world we live in. Digital has transformed society, government, culture, business, media and more. Barely an aspect of our lives has not been touched in some way.

Therefore, when I write about forming a digital strategy, I am not referring to a strategy for using a tool. I am talking about forming a strategy to adapt to the fundamental changes that digital has brought upon society.

Take, for example, the power that the Web has provided consumers to identify competitors, recommend products and services to friends, and share their dissatisfaction when things go wrong.


Before the Web, if somebody was unhappy with a product or service, they could moan to their friends, but that was about it. Now, we live in a world where a dissatisfied customer has global reach!

That single change in customer behavior has incredible ramifications on how we do business. When a “tool” has that kind of power, it warrants special attention.

This isn’t the first time a tool has so radically transformed society. The printing press is another good example. The printing press enabled the Lutherans to spread their message and to challenge the dominance of the Catholic Church. As a result, the Vatican took the printing press very seriously. They understood that the key aspect was the impact of the tool, not the tool itself.

Companies today need a digital strategy to help them adapt to the change that digital has brought to the world. They now operate in the context of this new world, and they need a clear vision of how to adapt to it.

As long as companies think of digital as just another tool, they will fail to embrace the full potential of the Web and mobile. Many organizations are still trying to wrap their heads around the changes that these innovations have brought. They are still unsure of how to deal with them properly.

We Are Still Learning How To Use Digital

For a long time, the industrial revolution was driven by the power of steam and water. That required building factories near rivers. The mass availability of electricity did away with that need, and yet over a decade later companies were still building their factories next to water. The full potential of electricity had just not sunk in.

We are in a similar situation today. Most organizations are carrying on with business as usual, even though the world has changed around them. For companies to adapt to this new world, somebody has to disrupt the status quo. Somebody has to demonstrate the full scope of how digital has changed business and show people how to harness this new technology.


Most organizations are not aware of the full potential of digital. Mentally, they are still building their factories by the water.

This is a problem that the industrialists tackled by appointing Chief Electricity Officers. To our eyes, this might seem ridiculous because electricity is now so ubiquitous, but at the time it was crucial for helping organizations to adapt to this revolutionary technology.

For this same reason, we need digital teams and strong digital leaders today. Companies need expert help to adapt. They need fresh blood to disrupt the old ways of working and to encourage new thinking. In short, companies need digital leadership.

As I have written before, this shouldn’t last forever. The digital team should exist primarily to educate, empower and support other business units. Companies will eventually adapt, and digital will become as ubiquitous as electricity. But until that day, we need digital champions to stop us from blindly building our factories next to water.

This is not to say that senior managers believe they are building by the water. That brings me to my final point.

Digital Is A Catalyst For Change

I am often surprised at how resistant managers are to adapt their companies’ structure to accommodate the new reality of digital. They persist in trying to squeeze it into their existing mental model by making it an IT problem or a communications tool.

Of course, as Web professionals, we know that digital does not fit comfortably in existing departmental silos. It requires a huge amount of cross-departmental collaboration.

How, then, do we bring managers to realize that digital is a company-wide issue? How do we get them to grasp the ramifications of this cultural phenomena?

Some would argue that we need to disabuse managers of their preconceptions, that the way to convince them that digital is a company-wide issue is to do away with separate digital strategies and digital teams. They argue that managers must understand that, one day, digital will be as ubiquitous as electricity is now to modern business life.

However, company-wide change is a tough sell to senior management. We need to be more pragmatic. We need to meet them halfway. To their minds, digital is an isolated problem, and so we need to start there and slowly widen their view.

By focusing initially on digital, we have a starting point to address their broader concerns. By appointing somebody as a digital lead and forming a digital team, we can highlight broader problems and work collaboratively with other units of the business.


A strong digital team can instigate a program of education across the whole organization. It can also work collaboratively with other departments to increase the impact of digital.

A strong digital lead with real authority can ensure that digital is included in all management discussions. They can disrupt out-of-date practices and encourage managers to consider digital options before falling back on traditional approaches.

Finally, a digital strategy can be used to instigate broader discussions about a company’s overall business goals and road map.

The key is to recognize that digital-focused thinking will not be required forever. One day, companies will not need Chief Digital Officers, the way we no longer have Chief Electricity Officers. We also need to recognize that the most important role of a digital team is not to own and implement a digital vision, but to facilitate company-wide change and to educate colleagues about the potential of digital in their areas of responsibility.

(al, il)

The illustrations in this article were thoroughly crafted by Veerle Pieters.


© Paul Boag for Smashing Magazine, 2014.