IT vs Digital

“So what’s the difference between IT and Digital?”

That’s a heck of a googly to receive at the end of a 90 minutes workshop. (For American readers, a googly in cricket is what a curveball is in baseball, but we Brits don’t play baseball. We play rounders. When we are seven.) Anyway, an interesting question, and another good example of how the best way to learn something is try and explain it to something else; here’s roughly what I said…

IT (information technology) is what has built up over many years within organisations to describe the technology and management required to deliver computer systems to support the internal operations of a business or organisation. Commonly the IT department ran everything (or managed the contracts with third parties who delivered part or all of the service).

Digital is one of those words that is essentially meaningless, but has evolved over the last 20 years (I take year zero for modern usage as being Nicholas Negroponte’s Being Digital book, but that’s my own benchmark). Today it’s commonly used to mean the technology within an organisation that is outward-facing, usually Internet-based.

For IT people, the “what is digital?” has formed part of something of an existential crisis in the past decade, particularly in the past five years. From a few websites being managed in the marketing team, the digital realm has expanded quickly both in terms of channels (smartphones, tablets, social networks…) and importance (from being a medium for communication to being a route to market to generate revenue).

How organisations are reacting to all of this seems to go through a three-stage pattern: chaos, centralisation and de-centralisation. At the chaotic stage, bits of customer (or supplier) stuff have happened in many different parts of an organisation, both functionally (marketing, sales, IT, customer service…) and geographically. The net result for the organisation is that costs are unmanageable, duplication is frequent, effectiveness is questionable, learning is dissipated and revenue-generation is difficult. For the customer, the whole experience gives the impression of an organisation in chaos, which of course is exactly what it is.

At some point usually somebody in a senior position asks “What the bloody hell is going on with all of this digital stuff?”, and the centralisation phase begins. Digital is brought under a centralised function, either within marketing (common), it’s own new shiny digital team (increasingly common, reporting into a Chief Digital Officer), IT (rarer) or somewhere else like customer service or operations (very uncommon but does happen). The chaos is smoothed out, often quite painfully as a number of pet projects are put to the sword.

The third stage of digital evolution is one that I’ve only seen a few companies reach to date, and that’s where digital becomes so embedded in the activities of the business as a whole that thinking of it as a separate thing is no longer relevant. Multi-functional teams are brought together to focus on either products or customers.

But within all of this, what about IT? Well, the forces that underpin digital change have been having their own impact on how IT is managed and delivered within businesses. The Internet has meant that technology and software that traditionally needed to be delivered using stuff that you kept in rooms in your offices can now be provided over the network. Software as a Service (things like Salesforce for customer relationship management, or Google Apps and Office 365 for email and documents) can provide tools into a web browser that in years before would have required teams of engineers and servers. Infrastructure or Platform as a Service (Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure and others) provide virtual servers so that IT teams can now even build their own software without having to have the machines locally to run it on.

At the same time, we’ve seen a revolution in the types of devices that we use to access all these Internet (or “cloud”)-based services. For the first 15 years of the personal computing revolution it was all about Moore’s Law determining faster and more powerful laptops and desktops. They kind of got to a point where more power became irrelevant, and so evolution has now switched to smartphones and tablets (and now other “wearable” computers like the Apple Watch). Clunky old office PCs just don’t feel that productive to many any more.

So alongside all the external digital stuff that has in many cases seen IT departments’ position of expertise challenged by new pretenders, their own clients’ expectations have risen because of these changes in consumer technology. IT has traditionally had a role to manage cost above all else, and as a result in many cases became embedded in processes that deliberately (if subconsciously) slowed change down. That’s become a liability in a world of faster technology change.

So what does the future hold for IT and Digital? Who knows, but there are a few options: IT becomes an endangered species, looking after a few old systems that no-one can work out how to kill off; IT embraces digital and forgets about the old stuff entirely; IT works out how it can both have its traditional cost-management role for things that need that approach as well as a revenue-generating approach for the new world.

Whatever happens, you can be sure that there’s plenty more confusion still to come…

3 Comments

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  1. Matt, a nice article!
    Though I must confess that I am surprised to see a article about Digital without customer at the centre of it. IT versus digital is the same as internal versus external outlook. IT is about processes, assets and technology working with a focus on operations (getting things ready or out) while the digital is more about the continuous interaction of the people with these outputs and the insights gained from them (which in turn tells IT to change) –something that can be termed as co-creation.
    Hope the message didn’t get lost in heavy words 🙂

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