A brief history of the ‘D’ word: Part II

Check out Part I here.

Welcome to the Digital Revolution!

Nest: analogue gets the digital treatment
Nest: analogue gets the digital treatment

Well actually this ‘revolution’ has been happening for the last half century and more; it is the third great epoch after the agricultural and industrial revolutions of the past.

But what we really mean is that ubiquity thing: digital touching every aspect of our lives. And that’s a bit more recent.

Given its ‘previous’ it’s a little surprising that digital wasn’t associated with all-things-web earlier, but instead we got lumbered with the slightly baffling ‘e’-appendage: e-forms, e-commerce, e-business, e-government (!). ‘E’ of course is electronic, which made perfect sense in the early days of e-mail, but all a bit obvious by the time we were in the full swing of the web revolution.

But the web, or more accurately internet, would prove to be the ultimate playground for our digital friend, brining its tentacles into every aspect of our daily lives. Suddenly everyone, and increasingly, everything was permanently connected: people, phones, tablets, laptops, even some decidedly last revolution things like cars, fridges and central heating systems.

Digital devices, digital platforms, digital everything; we’ve arrived, unscathed, at destination digital. Phew.

[Well almost.]

Digital is dead, long live digital

Given what we’ve seen it’s hardly surprising that digital means a lot of things to an awful lot of people, and continues to be used fairly indiscriminately as a result. In the public sector it’s become a slightly more current-sounding replacement for that dreaded ‘e’ prefix or the similarly vague ‘online’, which saddens me because it goes much deeper than this. And in the real world there are other much bigger things afoot.

However, as clearly demonstrated in Part I for anything to be truly worthy of this culturally-charged epithet it needs to meet the “three d’s” definition: disruptive, democratising and designed for the user.

And shock, based on this definition not all solutions are quite as digital as they could be. Bigger shock, IT might be part of the problem!

Digital and IT: The best of frenemies

Monoliths: Proper computers
Monolithic tech: Proper IT?

People outside of IT tend to think of our little world as one of constant invention and explosive new technologies. The reality is, particularly at the corporate end of things where I get to play, it can be a slightly risk-averse and conservative place. Accordingly it’s dominated by some pretty safe (and pretty big) companies with some equally conservative and, given the high market values, highly proprietary technologies.

There’s good reasons for this. Many of these companies came out of the first wave of ‘enterprise’ IT, where big tech was kind of inevitable if you wanted to do anything significant with it. And big tech demanded big money, which made these early leaders phenomenally wealthy and, therefore, dare I say, just a wee bit self-protectionist.

The kicker comes when you want to upgrade or, God forbid, rip up your current world and start again. Big tech means big change processes. Big change processes mean big money. Of course these monolithic systems still have their place, but it’s surprising how much of this we can do, for instance, with a modern browser and a well written web app.

Digital’s last hurrah…

Slack: The billion dollar app
Slack: A billion dollar app for a reason

That’s why certain IT people like me ended up being, er, digital people: We’re working on solutions that are innovative but inexpensive, smaller but highly-functional, scalable, available, constantly updated and, above all, designed with and for the end user.

And that’s the digital I’m rather excited about: it disrupts old ways of working and old, expensive technologies; it democratises processes that are often too centralised and unnecessarily onerous (or, scarily, still paper-based); and because it was designed with the user they actually want to use it.

Hopefully (and in my lifetime!) we’ll drop the d-word once and for all because these things will become de facto. Who knows we might even drop the whole IT thing while we’re at it… 🙂

In the meantime, when you hear a big supplier talking about their ‘digital’ solution, just apply the three d’s and make sure they’re not just jumping on a very big bandwagon.


In my next blog I’ll talk about digital in local government and my experiences of digital transformation across my 15+ years (gulp) of faffing about with new tech in an old world!

Any questions or comments hit me up below.

1 Comment »

  1. three d’s ?? would that be Disruptive Digital Don ? with you on disrupting old ways of working & thinking and the use of old style & expensive tech that rarely gets close to be centred around the customer……


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