So, what exactly is ‘Digital’?

So, what exactly is ‘digital‘? I asked this very question to one of my Computer Science students once, and he gave me what could be construed as a near-perfect response:  “it’s not analogue”.  Whilst there is truth in that answer – it does not encapsulate what we really mean by ‘digital’ in the world that we live in today.  There are many examples that can illustrate what we do mean, and one that I want to highlight relates to my 2-year old grandniece, Amila.

Recently, she tried to talk to Alexa (Amazon Echo).  On the surface, this may not seem spectacular and it may even appear amusing (and actually it was).  However, we need to consider this further to really understand the force that is at play.  Amila cannot yet engage in human conversation – at best she can articulate baby-like sounds as she learns and replicates words of the English language spoken by people around her, people that she learns from.  At the age of two, she is learning not only to speak with humans, but also with machines.  Her tutors are not only people, they are also smart devices.  If she is learning to talk to machines at the age of two, what will she be interacting with when she’s twenty-two?  What language will she be speaking?  What will she know, and what job will she be doing?  This change in behaviour that we are seeing, and will continue to see, is a result of ‘digital’.

Whilst there is no one definition of digital, we do know that it is a transformative and disruptive force that is changing society.  Digital is not just about the technology stack (and there’s a difference between a Digital Strategy and an IT Strategy). It is, on the other hand, about the harmony between cross-disciplinary thinking and the technology that results in solutions that add value.  It’s about creating transformative impact by aligning people, processes, culture & technologies to yield effective digital environments and a seamless experience for all users.

In my sessions on Digital, Mobile & Enterprise Transformation, I dissect digital into three aspects: (1) Core Concepts such as temporal and spatial frames, and how we alter and exploit these – this is where working “at any time and in any place” comes from; (2) Affordances such as: access; choice; connectedness; efficiency; empowerment; flexibility; ownership; value – and there are more; (3) the IT Strategy & Technology.  The degree and dimensions of digital transformation can also be considered – such as small-step changes through to organisation-wide diffusion; markets; processes and inclusion of organisation-specific concerns.

When talking about digital, we often talk about the ‘Digital Economy’ too.  The House of Commons Business, Innovation and Skills Committee defines this as an economy that, “refers to both the digital access of goods and services, and the use of digital technology to help businesses.” (The Digital Economy, Second Report of Session 2016–17) – a simple but somewhat effective definition.   That report also refers to the revolutionary & transformative impact of technology; the disruption of existing markets; the sharing economy and a model that relies on the sharing of goods, intellectual resource, labour and property using a digital platform.  Another report published last year by the Dept. for Business Innovation & Skills and Dept. for Culture Media & Sports states that, “Digital skills underpin growth across the economy and are vital to ensuring global competitiveness and productivity” and it goes on to define basic digital literacy skills, digital skills for the general workforce and digital skills for ICT professions.  Earlier this year (March 2017) the Government published the UK Digital Strategy and very recently its Industrial Strategy.  The word ‘digital’ appears many times over 53 pages (out of 256 pages) in that Industrial Strategy document.  Clearly, digital is high on the agenda – and it will remain so.

Beyond personalised examples of digital transformation – such as Amila talking to Alexa, there are macro-level concerns that need to be addressed in order to secure our digital future.  These concerns are about our immediate spatial context and how this determines our lives.  This spatial context is about our geography: where we live, learn, play and work.  It’s about our town, city and area/region.  Nesta (an innovation foundation) calls this ‘place-shaping’ – something which fits the broader concept of ‘clusters’ of people, industry sectors & businesses, technologies, knowledge & expertise – and the resulting socio-economic impact that they create.

Whilst there is a natural and appropriate democratisation of digital, there also needs to be some overarching direction and governance – a steer that will harmonise and magnetise the digital ecosystem as it matures.  In other words, digital leadership.  Failing to harness this ecosystem effectively is likely to result in inertia and a federated & disaggregated digital ‘place’ that will not yield the true affordances of digital in every respect.  There are many players in the digital space – all of whom have a valid role and contribution to make – but is there a first amongst equals that can truly drive digital, and should there be?  For example, we have two tiers of Local Government (County/City Councils); Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs); local/regional Universities; Chambers of Commerce, and sector-specific agencies in: healthcare; ICT; the creative industries; transport systems; tourism; lifestyle & leisure – to name a few.   In addition, we have programmes that embrace the concept of digital by convening like-minded individuals and groups to evolve and progress the digital agenda – for example, #SmartStaffordshire has recently been launched in this area.

Each of these is an essential player that contributes to the DNA of our ‘place’, but the systemic & intelligent interweaving of their contribution to result in digital congruence is crucial.  This is what will enhance our most immediate spatial context (our place) and move us forward as a digital society.  Perhaps an alternative ‘new kid on the block’ is needed – a ‘digital tsar’ type entity which provides a unifying platform, which establishes a common language and ensures that ‘digital’ is delivered. Perhaps an over-arching Regional Digital Assembly mandated to this effect.

So – what exactly is ‘digital’?  It’s the future.

Khawar Hameed is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Computing at Staffordshire University and a Digital Transformation Consultant.

Digital Transformation: Digital Leadership

Isolated transformation of Lime Butterfly ( papilio demoleus ) on white with clipping path

On the 1st March 2017, the Government published its UK Digital Strategy – seven strands of digital thread woven together to provide a framework for action to address digital transformation in the UK.  The ambition: “to create a world-leading digital economy that works for everyone” [1].  The strategy aims to build on the very strong and credible position held by the UK in the digital sector, and to create an economy which “is resilient to change and fit for the future” [2].

The seven strands of the new UK Digital Strategy are:

  1. Connectivity – building world-class digital infrastructure for the UK
  2. Digital skills and inclusion – giving everyone access to the digital skills they need.
  3. The digital sectors – making the UK the best place to start and grow a digital business
  4. The wider economy – helping every British business become a digital business
  5. A safe and secure cyberspace – making the UK the safest place in the world to live and work online
  6. Digital government – maintaining the UK government as a world leader in serving its citizens online
  7. Data – unlocking the power of data in the UK economy and improving public confidence in its use

The UK’s current digital stronghold is reported in the Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI) which tracks the evolution of EU member states in digital competitiveness.  The Index is an element of the Digital Single Market programme – one of the European Commission’s top priorities.  This perhaps provides a somewhat nostalgic reassurance of the UK’s position in an EU context, and its future post-Brexit potential in its drive to grow as a world-leading digital economy.

‘Digital’ is not just about the technology stack – it’s about the harmony and congruence of a range of cross-disciplinary concepts and the technology to yield affordances of: inclusivity & connected communities, efficiencies & productivity, service innovation & value, competitiveness & strategic advantage, empowerment, and releasing the full potential of human capital across the spectrum of personal, social and corporate life. Transformation can manifest through small-step changes or macro-level disruptive intervention.  ‘Digital’ is sometimes referred to as the 4th Industrial Revolution, and like any revolution it can have transformative impact.

We see and experience transformation all around us: in a personal context as we progress through life, at our place of work as it responds to sector-specific demands, and in nature as the seasons change.  Transformation can be disruptive & challenging, but the results can be beautiful – like a butterfly that emerges after the four stages of metamorphosis, governed by the laws of nature.

Governance of digital transformation is an interesting matter.  We have seen a significant ‘democratisation of digital’ in recent years, and this has seeded the growth of a fertile digital economy and ecosystem – an open playing field for a game that is still evolving, and in which the role and position of players is yet to fully emerge.  Perhaps it is then not so much about governance of (or within) this evolving landscape – but much more about digital leadership.

The new UK Digital Strategy provides a well-constructed and harmonised framing mechanism – seven strands which, individually and compositely, provide the basis for achieving digital transformation for the UK.  Leadership that translates this into implementation at national, regional, local, and institutional levels is perhaps the key to digital success.

The definition of digital leadership is somewhat embryonic and evolving.  Attributes cited include that of: having transformative vision (this is frequently referred to); being a forward-thinker; capable of creating a distinct and effective digital culture; having a change-oriented and ‘can-do’ mind set; the capability to inspire; to be able to manage complexity, and to understand digital congruence & alignment [3].  Other attributes and capabilities cited include: the ability to frame the digital challenge and to assess organisational digital maturity; focusing & targeting investment; understanding internal & external governance; implementing strong enterprise-level governance; engaging the organisation at scale, and sustaining the transformation [4].  The definition of digital leadership in context of CxO-type roles is perhaps a matter for debate, and on this note – it’s interesting to observe the prefixing of the term ‘Digital’ to a range of jobs across industry sectors.

Finally, the UK Digital Strategy refers to the UK’s proud history of digital innovation and the early of days of computing.  We’re very proud to be part of that history at Staffordshire University.  Last year we celebrated ’50 Years of Computing’ – a milestone of being at the forefront of computing education and one of five institutions that first started to offer degrees in computing in 1965.  Since then we have helped to create an international workforce of highly-skilled computing professionals who have applied their knowledge and skills to yield transformative digital solutions to solve society’s problems.   As an institution, we continue to pioneer in the world of computing and the digital economy – recently undertaking an institutional-level digital transformation programme to become a fully digitally-enabled University and digital leader in the HE sector.

The UK Digital Strategy can be found at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/uk-digital-strategy

[1] UK Digital Strategy, Ministerial Foreword, Published 01/03/17

[2] UK Digital Strategy, Executive Summary, Published 01/03/17

[3] Aligning the Organization for Its Digital Future, MITSLoan Management Review, Findings from the 2016 Digital Business Global Executive Study and Research Project, Delloite University Press

[4] The Digital Advantage: How Digital Leaders Outperform Their Peers in Every Industry. MITSloan Management, Capgemini Consulting

Khawar Hameed is a Senior Lecturer/Academic in the Department of Computing, School of Computing & Digital Technologies, Staffordshire University, UK,