Digital Economy Dispatch #106 -- Beware of "Digital-By-Default"

Digital Economy Dispatch #106 — Beware of Digital-By-Default20th November 2022

I am not a big fan of slogans. Never have been. Maybe this is a reaction to walking around too many corporate offices in the 1990s and looking up to find posters on the walls of every conference room with contrived images emblazoned with trite motivational sayings. Rowers in a boat on a river with the word “Teamwork!” in big letters. Smartly dressed business people in athletic poses urging “Flexibility!”. And my favourite cringe from the IBM office in Raleigh, a photograph of a fast-flowing stream and the phrase: “Be the water, not the rock!”. It’s all bit too “1984”, isn’t it?

Yet, I also understand the importance that language and images play in changing the corporate culture of an organization. The words we use matter. They are particularly important when trying to shift a large established organization (LEO) from its common ways of working toward new attitudes and approaches. How people interact is packed with jargon that has been developed and solidified over many years. Through these narrow bands of communication, it is inevitable that we become rather trapped into established ways of seeing the world. Blinkered by the experiences that form and define then.

Much of the change theory points to the need for a fresh set of descriptions and a set of shared narratives about how the organization sees itself, the challenges ahead, and the benefits that arise from moving forward. This need to redefine the lexicon of an organization has been well recognized in approaches to digital transformation. It is something I have recognized too. I spend a lot of my time with organizations of every flavour in very different places in their digital transformation journey. The temptation is to rock up with a fist full of actions for them to adopt drawn from past engagements and immediately start the task of “making a difference”. But I now make sure to resist that urge.

Discovering the Digital Lingua Franca

One of the most important lessons that I have learned over the years is that the first thing you must do when getting to know an organization involves doing nothing. Engaging in “masterful inactivity”, as a colleague once told me. Just listen. Get a sense of the dialogue taking place across teams. Tune in to the vocabulary through which ideas are communicated. And above all, identify the way this language is used across different communities. Observing the way that they talk about their digital activities offers one of the most important insights into the organization’s digital maturity. How do they use key words and phrases? What images do they use to describe their current situation and future aspirations? Which examples of success and failure do they cite?

This listening approach is a great start. However, it only gets you so far. In doing so it becomes clear that this “digital lingua franca” hides an important issue. Digital transformation scenarios are replete with new terms, old terms reinterpreted, and acronyms. The people involved are bombarded by a myriad of figures, facts, opinions, and beliefs coming from a variety of sources.

As a result, the hardest part in observing the digital dialogue is deciphering what is understood by the use of the key terms. Crucially, this means that individuals and teams using the same words may hold to quite different interpretations. The perspective they adopt then becomes a basis on which they refine their actions, evolve ways of working, and adopt new skills.

Consequently, they each grab hold of these terms and interpret them in their own way. No surprise, then, that to make progress simplified common interpretations emerge. Unfortunately, these can be dangerously simplistic. Indeed, amongst significant communities there may be common interpretations emerging that drive the organization to the wrong behaviours and in the wrong direction.

My Digital is Not Your Digital

Let’s take a particularly common example to illustrate the point. The phrase “digital-by-default” is frequently introduced by organizations embarking on a digital transformation programme. They want to signal to all stakeholders that a digital approach to product development and service delivery is critical to the organization’s future. Perhaps they also see digitally focused activities as a priority for growth and want to encourage employees to build their digital skills. So far, so good.

Unfortunately, “digital-by-default” is one of the most problematic phrases at the core of many of the digital transformation strategies being executed today. In practice, the phrase is widely misunderstood by a workforce only recently (and often reluctantly) getting to grips with digital approaches. Without care it encourages a range of activities that prioritize the wrong actions. Digital product and service delivery teams hide behind this phrase as an excuse for all kinds of challenging behaviours.

In the minds of different people, use of the phrase “digital-by-default” signifies quite different intentions. This can be seen in at least 5 different behavioural anti-patterns that I have observed, all justified by being tied to the phrase “digital-by-default”:

  • Website-by-default. To provide a “digital-by-default” approach, the focus is to move all services to be online and accessed via a website. Digital is widely believed to be “drive people to the website”. Investments in skills development, improvements to ineffective practices, and upgrades to ailing technology infrastructure are depreciated as secondary or irrelevant. Taken to these extremes, the resulting digital transformation is in danger of being quite shallow and only succeeds in papering over the cracks of existing solutions.

  • Automation-by-default. A “digital-by-default” solution is believed to demand replacement of all human activities with their digitized equivalents. The goal is to maximize automation at all costs. Solutions adopted involve untested AI technologies, glued together with unmanaged use of Robotic Process Automation (RPA) and user-created Low/No Code schemes. The organization then finds it has a much more complex set of digital technologies to manage with clients confused by the diminishing humanity in their interactions.

  • Agile-by-default. The delivery approach for “digital-by-default” switches all emphasis to fast, agile cycles. At its best this means that teams spend more time creating customer facing solutions and demonstrating progress through working systems. Unfortunately, the pressure of this shift to fast delivery cycles results in shortcuts that reduces overall stability and robustness of the system. Agile is seen as exclusively a near-term focus at the expense of producing shared requirements models, design documents, and long-term maintenance schedules.

  • Anti-legacy-by-default. To create an appropriate digital technology platform for “digital-by-default” all technologies designed and delivered over the past decades are abandoned in favour of new component-based alternatives. Cloud-based platforms are introduced as more adaptable foundations for future systems. Yet, in the rush to abandon previous products and practices much is lost. The operational experiences embedded in these so-called “legacy systems” are the corporate memory that is essential to on-going success of these complex operational environments. Removing them creates a hole in the corporate knowledge through which the organization maintains control and discipline.

To reiterate, the drive toward “digital-by-default” is important. However, each of these destructive behaviours emerges from well-meaning attempts to incorporate this aim within the digital transformation journey. The danger is that a misguided attempt to deliver “digital-by-default” leads to strategies in which it is interpreted without question and without contextualization. The result, seen all too often across organizations in digital flux, is that the good intentions of the organization to use these themes to drive toward a new culture of digital excellence instead lead to dead ends, extremes, shortcuts, and disappointment.

The Language of Life

Language matters. In digital transformation as much as in other walks of life, the words we use and the phrases we repeat form a key part of the shared culture that characterizes an organization. That’s why it is important to mark the digital transformation journey with significant shifts in the lexicon in use.

Yet this comes with many dangers. Beware of becoming obsessed with phrases such as “digital-be-default”. While they can point the direction of travel, they can also be mis-interpreted, mis-used, and mis-applied. It is essential to get beyond the rhetoric and jingoism to deliver digital strategies that bring meaningful change to products and practices. Make sure your focus is building digital skills and actionable insights, not promoting slogans and buzzwords.