Being Digital in a Human World


Digital business can create real value for all stakeholders - employees, customers, suppliers, shareholders … as long as the human factor of these relationships is kept in mind.

We are truly living in a digital world – an environment enabled, driven, and dominated by bits and bytes, data and information, systems and technology. All of this digital stuff has high-minded aspirations, enriching our lives with capability and convenience – while creating economic growth and driving sustainable value.

In this environment, businesses are repeatedly encouraged to “embrace digital” and transform themselves to take advantage of these exciting new developments. The idea is a bit tough to escape, and driven strongly by profound changes in capabilities and expectations (and manifested by exciting new products and services) in the Consumer markets. To some extent, the Industrial economy has been able to resist these shiny new objects; the value chains, market dynamics, and product complexities in the world of B2B have limited the application of fast-twitch, socially connected, fashion-driven demand. But changes in demographics, the expansion of mobile technologies, and the advent of the Internet of Things (aka Industrial Internet 4.0 or Smart, Connected Products) have closed the loop; these new ideas promise (or threaten) a fundamental transformation of products and services in the Industrial and B2B worlds.

Embracing the Change

Being digital – thinking and acting with a truly digital mindset – is absolutely a participation sport. Over the years, I have practiced this sport by getting my hands dirty with the technology as it morphed and matured. And many aspects of this sport are actively changing and maturing, as society incorporates new tools into our daily lives. Case in point – social media. In our digital lifetimes, we have seen the transformation of Facebook, as it completes its arc from newcomer to must-have to has-been. It’s text-based core replaced by the visually centered likes of YouTube and Instagram, and it is losing attention share with the younger demographic. In light of this, and in consideration of my constant quest to stay aware and in touch with digital shifts, I have adopted the Instagram persona of the Executive Digital Nomad.

The concept of Digital Nomad is not new; one who takes advantage of this new digital ubiquity, and performs their work – connecting & collaborating, creating & composing, participating on teams spread around the globe, and completing their work from any location. In my current role, this work style fits nicely, as I travel extensively to connect with and support people in IT, Finance, Operations, Sales, and Product Development functions. And because I work for a global company, some of my working locations can be quite interesting – coffee shops, hotels, and public spaces in the US, Europe, and Asia. So when a took a recent vacation in Africa, I thought it might be fun to extend this idea into the further reaches of the world.

Surprisingly, Digital is Everywhere

When you are off on safari, you truly are disconnected from the digital world. Forget Wi-Fi in the safari camp – you are so far from civilization that telephone coverage is nonexistent. But I realized that technology is still not 100% dependent on a live connection to the internet; using my notepad and voice recorder, I could work on my writing projects and be productive. The digital connection happens when I send the file to a digital transcription site that transcribes my dictation into text that I can edit.

Please believe me – I was happy to leave behind the always-connected lifestyle, with its expectation that I was connected and reachable 24×7. A 10-day “cold turkey” plan is a great way to break my habit of checking eMail and worrying about missing out on some fabulous new internet meme. Besides – I was on vacation … come on!

But in truth it wasn’t such an escape – digital ideas were everywhere, absolutely surrounding me. It was no surprise, for example, that Cape Town has ubiquitous Wi-Fi, and the preferred method to get around town was to dial up an Uber. Even when we were off on safari, digital thinking was prevalent. We met Karen, the Camp Manager with a stellar resume in hospitality (Emirates, Four Seasons, Disney Orlando) and a promising career in management – all while cultivating her ambition to create a software package for hospitality. She is in a terrific position and she knows it – deep domain knowledge, an understanding of the competition … she is even lining up tech expertise based on two other continents!

Even our safari guides were connected thinkers – spiritual men of the earth, dedicated to the environment and nature. But Oats, our first guide, spoke at length about how he will market and sell his elephant repellant idea using YouTube and social media. And TJ, our second guide, noted with irony that he could not buy his favorite bird book locally, even though the author lived in the nearby town; he had to order it from Amazon.

Thankfully, Humanity is Everywhere

At the same time, I was surrounded by reminders of the human factor, and the importance of connecting with people. Cape Town and Johannesburg, for example, are amazing cities still actively celebrating their liberation and the memory of Nelson Mandela. In Cape Town specifically, there is a clear focus and visible emphasis on enabling women for success in business and society. And more basic human needs came to the fore; there is still a severe drought in Cape Town, and I grew comfortable taking a shower with a bucket between my legs – to catch the extra (especially when warming up the water) to be used in the gardens of our bed and breakfast. Have you ever spent time in a large city dealing with drought? You become hyper-sensitive to your impact on the environment and your place in the community – even if it is a short-term visit!

Humanity is incorporating Digital into our thinking, our doing, our living. And so it is natural – and very practical – to incorporate Digital thinking into our businesses as well. Digital business is human business – as in life, the two ideas are inextricably linked.

We see echos of this in the latest technology developments, as AI and Robotics seem to threaten humainty’s role in the value chain. Automating work and eliminating people makes for great headlines – but the smarter bet on these technologies is that they will augment human effort, make us smarter and more able – not replace us.

How do we counter the fear of jobs being replaced by smart machines, robots, and automation? By pointing out that the most impactful applications of this tech is not in replacing humans, but augmenting their work – doing the rote, repetitive, and labor-intensive stuff, and freeing up our time for analysis, decision-making, value judgment, and deeper insights.

Being Digital in a Human World

This is the true measure of a digital business, and a core requirement for any digital transformation. A digital business will only succeed when it understands how to connect with people. And your digital transformation will only succeed when it incorporates ideas like human centered design, tech- and soft-skills development, and a real focus on engagement, inclusion, and the people within your company that will interact with these digital tools to get the job done.

Digital business can create real value for all stakeholders – employees, customers, suppliers, shareholders … as long as the human factor of these relationships is kept in mind.

26 August, 2018

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