Why digital really has little to do with technology

Has your blogger lost the plot? Is this some April Fool’s Day joke?

How could digital communications have nothing to do with technology? Surely it’s ALL about technology. 

Isn’t it?

From a technology perspective, of course it is. Digital communications has only been made possible by advances in computer programming technology – now some distance from the analogue and even pre-computer days of old.

Digital technology has revolutionised the way we communicate, promote and transact – to the point where pretty much any business transaction is literally at our fingertips.

But from a business perspective, it’s simply a new way of doing things business has done for centuries.


New ways of doing old stuff


Let’s take a look at some significant digital developments to test this theory.

  • Search engines are really all the world’s directories in one;
  • eBay is one large marketplace or is even the new Trading Post
  • eCommerce is shopping
  • Amazon is a large department store
  • Smartphones are phones, pens, calculators, maps and stereos all rolled into one
  • Email is mail
  • And Facebook is one big 24/7 party

And so on.

Not one actual new behaviour – though admittedly social networking comes close as we have discussed here before. Most everything has been done before, despite being performed in a relatively primitive way.

Of course, digital technology may well have revolutionised much of the way these capabilities are performed and delivered, but the fundamentals remain the same.


Business is business


And so it is for business.

Despite digital technologies transforming much of the way we do business, the actual business outcome is no different to what it was 10, 50 or 200 years ago.

  • An email is still business communication
  • Websites are still a promotional piece and/or a shop
  • Social networking is still business communication
  • Search engines are still a business directory
  • Email marketing is still direct marketing
  • eCommerce is still selling

And so on.

But despite these capabilities remaining essentially the same as they always have been, the fact that they are provided in a completely different way means that the incumbent responsibility for that capability shifts from a traditional department to the IT department.

And it has always been thus.


Blinded by science 


When computers first emerged, non IT staff didn’t actually use them: Pools of ‘computer operators’ took our tasks and ‘computerised’ them to come up with the final result.

When websites emerged, despite their main purpose as a marketing communications piece, responsibility was allocated not to the marketing department, but to the IT department. This explains why our first business websites were technically robust, but creatively and promotionally barren.

And why bosses soon realised that they required people with marketing, creative and usability skills to assist the technical person achieve the required communications objective.


The purpose not the medium


The same thing has occurred with subsequent developments like eCommerce and social networking.  Because they took place on a computer, it stood to reason that a ‘computer person’ had to take responsibility for it.

Seems logical enough. The only problem is, IT professionals are rarely qualified to lead what are essentially the digital migrations of every other business silo or department.

The fundamental problem was bosses were seeing the medium (the computer and the internet) and not the application (communication, marketing, sales, finance, etc).

But IT is not for IT’s sake. IT is there to enable the various departments within the organisation, not actually become the organisation.

This isn’t to say that technology doesn’t become a crucial part of the organisation and may in fact become its reason for being (e.g. Google, eBay, Apple, etc), but marketing remains marketing, operations remains operations and so on. They are merely more enabled by technology.


Good with computers, not so good with…


A common response to the allocation of these newfangled capabilities is that Joe is ‘pretty good with computers’.

But these days it’s not nearly enough. By all means bring ‘computer people’ onto your project or team, but make sure they are fully accompanied by the departmental lead who actually understands what business objective you are trying to achieve and provide the IT person with what they need to deliver the required outcome.

In the next few weeks I’ll look at some prime examples of how some critical business capabilities have been vested in the wrong hands as a result of this ‘digital delusion’.

In addition to being a leading eBusiness educator to the smaller business sector, Craig Reardon is the founder and director of independent web services firm The E Team which was established to address the special website and web marketing needs of SMEs in Melbourne and beyond.


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