[This was origionally posted to the excellent new
blog dealing with startup news and tech entrepreneurs’ stories from the
emerging market sector]
We have been talking about “digital” for a while now. Mostly about the tools. Right now it’s Apps and iPad, Twitter and Facebook, measuring tools and publishing tools and reading tools. But tools are just that: tools. We have all managed to learn to use some, even the thickest of us. And then we managed to learn to use some more. Tools however, are pretty useless without context, the why, when and where. Context is difficult. Tools are easy. We are lazy.
Digitalisation is a much deeper change than learning to use new tools. Digitalisation is a serious shift in the way we see ourselves, societal structures and each other. It is a mindset change. A radical shift in perception. It is a (r)evolution, unstoppable (though not unshapable) and global. The shift from an analogue to a digital society is as profound as was the shift from an agrarian to an industrial society.
Remember the industrial revolution? What was it they talked about back then? It was the tools. The steam engine, the spinning jenny, the threshing machines, the machine tools, the factories. Of course these things were significant. They were not however the change. They were just some of the more concrete symbols of the change. The real, lasting, deep change was a mindset change.
Our perception of time changed: from an agrarian rhythm of the seasons, the cycle of the moon and sun, to the industrial minutes and seconds of the watch. This was not a tool change, though tools played a part in the change. This was a fundamental perception change.
Families changed Our notion of family changed: from an agrarian concept of an extended group of people living in loose proximity to the industrial concept of the nuclear family and urbanisation. Same word, but a decidedly different meaning. Again, a fundamental perception change.
It is this same sort of shift I believe we are going through now. A shift from an analogue to a digital society. A profound, radical and global shift in perception. A shift we are only seeing the beginning of.
Just as the Industrial Revolution took almost a century to affect its change on its’ world at the time, so too will the digital revolution take time to evolve. This is one of the things that makes our lives so difficult. We have both systems coexisting. The analogue and the digital cohabit the same time/space. Analogue organisational principals still work – on the analogue rump. Analogue business models still work – on the analogue rump. Not only do they still work, they still make large profits. It would be stupid not to continue to make sound business decisions and profits based on the depth of experience gained through years of understanding how the analogue world worked. But the analogue world is a dying system. It is a rump. A massive rump. But a rump nonetheless.
It would be equally stupid to try to apply these same sound methods to a different context and expect the same results. But that’s exactly what is happening. Overlying analogue perceptions on a digital reality and calling that a strategy is tragic and suicidal. It is what the newspaper business has tried to do with predictable results. Nothing is killing the newspaper business, it is committing slow suicide. The advertising/marketing/PR industry is replicating the mistakes of the newspaper industry and the results will be similar. This is less a crisis of creativity than organisation and structure. There is a great future journalists and creatives, but not for the structures that presently employ them.
Thinking beyond the now It is like a coach-builder in the beginnings of the industrial revolution who sees an automobile and wants to put a horse in front of it. I can see them laughing at the awfulness of the automobile. It was crap. Slow. Needed constant refueling. Lacked the sensuous smell of horseshit. What they did not realise was what so many analogue businesses still do not realise: it is not about the now, it is about the trajectory. It is about continuing to make money building coaches, but understanding that diverting investment to building automobiles rather than lobbying for them to be banned or have horses put in front of them is the way to survival. It is about seeing where the profound societal shifts are, the perception shifts.
One of the most profound perception shifts of the digital society will, I believe, be the shift from the individual to the network as the basic unit of communication. It used to be the case that the individual wandered through the communicative landscape in solitary glory. We bumped into other individuals and exchanged information.
This is no longer the case. We are now continuously integrated into and constantly interacting with our network. If we chose to. The default position is network:on. We never leave home without our invisible posse. It may be Twitter or Facebook or Mixit or Foursquare or the Grid, or all of the above, it really doesn’t matter. The tools will differ. The shift in communicative structure will remain.
We are networked. All. The. Time. This changes things.
Not only are we connected to our own invisible posse, we are serendipitously connected to their networks. A ghost gang. this has huge implications for all aspects of communication. There are a whole new set of skills to be learned, both for individuals and enterprises. We need to learn how networks work. How do they communicate. How to chose a good network.
Twitter, cats and crap How often have you heard: “My Twitter network is so crap. All I see are people telling me what they had for breakfast, or what their shit looks like, or how their cats are. What a timesuck”.
Lets break that down.
Firstly; context. We have to understand that networked information is only irrelevant if the context is wrong. If you are a marketer then what people have for breakfast is very relevant. If you are a gastrointestinal specialist or have a scat fetish then what peoples shit looks like could be very interesting. Your timesuck may be my business or pleasure. Personally I am interested in all the above given the right context. My sister lives in Galway, Ireland. My brother in Baltimore USA. My other sister just outside Dublin. Me, I live in Stockholm, Sweden. Knowing what my nieces and nephews and sisters and brother had for breakfast is a vital part of keeping the family network alive, it enriches my life.
Secondly; networking skills. If your network is shite it is because you have chosen a shite network. It is that simple. No-one but you chooses your network. You are not forced to follow anyone. You chose to. It is a skill and we will learn it in time. The risk is that we will blame the network for being shit and call it a failure. Coachbuilder – meet car.
Enterprises need to start to understand networks on a much deeper level than now if they are to survive. Understanding how networks communicate, replicate, distribute information, handle serendipity, organise and police themselves will be decisive to success. This is as true for political and social movements as it is for commercial actors.
Have you got a network manager or community manager on staff? ‘Bout time you got some then. Networks will handle the distribution of information to the individuals within them.
All too often we prefer to talk of the tools. It is easier, less nebulous, more concrete. But tools are just tactics. Understanding networks is strategic. Just ask Umair Haque. Or Nestlé.