Change in the Digital Era: Both Too Fast and Too Slow
Assessing the pace of change in the Digital Era depends on whether we’re talking about technology or people and human systems. The former is advancing at lightning speed, the latter at a snail’s pace. As the Digital Era progresses, technological capabilities continue to outstrip our capacity to address the opportunities and challenges they present. We need to bridge (or at least narrow) the digital divide and enable humans and human systems to evolve more in concert with technology. It won’t be easy.
Change in the Digital Era is happening both way too fast and entirely too slowly. Never before have we been able to do so much so quickly and effortlessly, with the possibility of new technological capabilities seeming virtually limitless. But technological change is outstripping our capacity to adapt. Most people, organizations, industries, economies and societies are struggling to keep pace (let alone get ahead), with many still functioning with an Industrial Era perspective and operating principles.
We need to bridge (or at least narrow) the digital divide and enable humans and human systems to evolve more in concert with technology. It won’t be easy.
Technology Change in the Digital Era: Too Fast
When it comes to social and digital technology, it seems like the only constant is change. New platforms, tools, channels, gadgets, and apps are being introduced almost daily (or so it seems), along with corresponding new concepts, terms, companies, revenue streams, and markets.
First we had the internet, which spawned email and the World Wide Web, which in turn provided the foundation for social media platforms. Simultaneously, advances in mobile technology led to cell phones, then smartphones, then tablets. Also running in parallel was the evolution of cloud computing and various “as a service” solutions to meet the digital needs of individuals and organizations.
Over the past five years, all these technologies started to converge, and we saw the corresponding rise of “big data” and analytics to turn digital activity into actionable information. Now we also have the Internet of Things (IoT) as a megatrend, along with other uniquely Digital Era innovations like digital currency, drones, cybersecurity, robots, artificial intelligence – the list goes on!
I am committed to staying as current as possible with technology trends, and I have to admit there are days I feel completely overwhelmed by all the changes taking place. As exciting as all this technological progress is, I sometimes want to shout: Will the Relentless Pace of Change Please Relent?
There are times when technological change feels like a force we can’t control. It seems like we have created a monster of sorts, and the more we feed the monster, the more ravenous it gets. As users and consumers of digital technology, we are all culpable in creating this digital Frankenstein of course. We demand More! Faster! Better! when it comes to things like power, speed, sophistication, simplicity, information, and ease of use. We insist on staying connected, we want content everywhere, we jump on bandwagons, we make things go viral and create digital sensations. “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” (Wikipedia)
Human Change in the Digital Era: Too Slow
Ironically, although individual users and consumers have a lot to do with driving the pace of technological change in the Digital Era, they are not changing themselves and the human systems of which they’re a part. In fact, when it comes to the adaptation of people, organizations, industries, societies, economies, etc., the pace of change in the Digital Era is incredibly, painfully slow.
Most of my clients and prospects are not very digitally sophisticated, and their organizations aren’t as far along on their digital transformation journeys as they could (or should) be. Many of them are somewhat embarrassed and inclined to apologize for how “behind” they are. I assure them their lack of progress is fairly typical, and the fact that they’re seriously considering a digital upgrade now puts them far ahead of many of their peers and competitors.
To illustrate just how slow human change in the Digital Era is, I’ll share two thought pieces I wrote in early 2012 and early 2013. It almost pains me to admit that not much has changed since then. Most of the hopes I expressed in 2012 haven’t been realized, and most of my observations in 2013 are still true today. Click on the + to read what I had to say back then. You can click on the title again to collapse each section and continue reading the rest of the article.
It’s the time of year when people reflect back on 2011 and look forward to 2012. After reading a number of pieces that focus on predictions, prognostications, and anticipated trends in the technology space, particularly social media and 2.0 technologies, I was prompted to reflect on my own expectations for 2012.
To begin, I’ve learned my lesson – the hard way – about making predictions. Nearly three years ago, I decided to devote myself full time to expanding the use of social media and 2.0 technologies in organizations. I was incredibly naïve (as it turns out) about people’s willingness and ability to understand, let alone embrace, new digital approaches to pursuing their goals and objectives. Media hype and impassioned advocacy mask the reality that the vast majority of working adults – particularly those in leadership positions at organizations of all types – are still sitting on the sidelines of the digital movement. There are many reasons for this, of course – some of them justified, some not so much.
I’ve given a lot of thought to why there hasn’t been more progress, but in this post I want to focus on the positive rather than the negative. Specifically, I want to articulate my hopes for what might happen in 2012, which can in turn lay the foundation for what should happen in the years ahead.
My specific hopes below are predicated on a general hope – namely, that the global economy will stabilize enough to encourage people to focus on the future with a renewed sense of optimism and confidence. I also hope we will devote more energy to action than talk, working together to address the opportunities and challenges we face rather than bickering and playing the blame game. The realization of these hopes is critical to all kinds of advances and successes in 2012, not just the enhanced adoption of new technologies.
One of the paradoxes of technology adoption is that it is fundamentally a human endeavor. Creating the means to do things better, faster, cheaper is irrelevant if people don’t embrace the new tools and approaches. Throughout the early days of the Digital Era, our technological capabilities have generally exceeded the willingness and ability of people to leverage them. Jane Young summarizes the situation well in her comment on this Forbes piece:
Our biggest challenge isn’t keeping up with the latest in social media, it’s finding ways to get mindset to catch up with capabilities and new knowledge…. Companies who recognise we’re facing a psychological challenge rather than a technological one, will thrive.
My hopes for 2012 are rooted in the psychological challenges we face and are built on our willingness – both individually and collectively – to address them in thought, word, and deed. Sort of in order (but not really), I hope that:
- People – especially organizational leaders – will recognize that we are fully in the Digital Era and will begin to explore more fully what that means for them as individuals and for their organizations. They will acknowledge they don’t understand new digital technologies as well as they could/should – and more importantly, they will make a real effort to educate themselves.
- More leaders will act like leaders – taking a broader view of their organization, industry, and the larger world in which both function; focusing on the future; engaging in strategic discussions; demonstrating a willingness to take risks. More specifically, they will recognize the transformative power of digital technology across multiple disciplines and will use their newly-acquired understanding to develop appropriate strategic priorities and objectives, and to allocate necessary human and other resources to pursue those objectives.
- We will stop sanctifying and vilifying social media, recognizing that it is neither “the cure for all that ails us” nor “the end of civilization as we know it.” Both things are true, but neither position represents the truth. We will move past unproductive, moot arguments and focus more on developing solutions for managing the new realities of our lives as effectively as possible.
- In a related vein, we will stop thinking of social media as a frivolous novelty and begin to take it and other digital technologies more seriously, recognizing that these technologies are necessary utilities for functioning in the 21st Century.
- We will understand that leveraging new digital technologies is at once both a (r)evolutionary step forward and a return to more natural ways of communicating, collaborating, and learning. We will realize that digital technology is most effectively viewed as a means to achieving our goals and objectives rather than an end unto itself.
- We will shift from a focus on external uses of social media – particularly in a BtoC (business-to-consumer) context – to recognize the greater need (and opportunity) to address internal and inter-organizational applications and implications of new technologies in organizations of all types and sizes. We will begin to integrate these technologies into existing projects and operations in all functional areas.
- We will develop more thoughtful and strategic approaches to digital engagement that employ appropriate platforms and communication channels based on organizational characteristics, stakeholder demographics, and other factors. We will be less reactive, less likely to engage in copycat behavior, and less inclined to pursue a “one size fits all” model.
- The false assumption of the inherent superiority of “Digital Natives” and “Millennials” in leveraging new technologies will cease to dominate people’s thinking. We will realize that we all have the opportunity – and ability – to be as digitally proficient as we want to be. As we all become more digitally proficient, we will once again realize that substance (e.g., functional and organizational knowledge, experience, wisdom, emotional intelligence, communication skills) is much more important than form (i.e., specific digital skills) – and far more difficult to acquire!
- More high-quality formal education and training about social media and other new digital technologies will be available. And recognizing the need to make a lifelong investment in their own success, more people will take advantage of it to climb their short-term learning curves more efficiently and effectively – and to lay a strong foundation for continuous learning and improvement.
- Organizations of all types will shift from public social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and LinkedIn to private digital networks (PDNs) for internal communication and collaboration. The value of PDNs for inter-organizational communication and collaboration will also be realized and exploited more fully.
- Organizations will take appropriate action to manage their Digital Era risks by reviewing and updating their employee policies, creating social media policies/guidelines where necessary/appropriate, and providing ongoing training for both individual contributors and managers.
- Technology advocates will focus less on disruptive applications and more on how new technology can extend and enhance existing competencies rather than destroying them. And instead of primarily defining the success of technology companies – both start-ups and established firms – based on their splashy hits, we will place more value on incremental contributions and improvements that have a larger, albeit quieter, impacts.
Are my hopes a bit naïve and idealistic? Probably. Are they realistic? That’s up to all of us to determine. We’re really the only thing standing in the way of turning dreams into realities…
In my first piece of 2013 – Social and Digital Tech Trends: 9 Take-Aways for YOU (updated and republished here) – I shared a number of resources addressing technology trends for 2012 and 2013 and highlighted the implications of those trends for individuals and the organizations of which they’re a part.
As I was working on that piece, I decided to revisit a piece I wrote a year ago entitled 12 Hopes for 2012: Enhanced Adoption of Digital Technologies, to see how many of my hopes had been realized and how much the digital landscape had changed (or not, as the case may be), in the past 12 months. In this piece I reflect back on 2012 and offer some thoughts for the year ahead. My attitude going into 2013 is much more pragmatic, but my ideals and aspirations are unchanged. I’m looking forward to seeing what the next twelve months brings.
Media hype and impassioned advocacy continue to mask the reality that the vast majority of working adults – particularly those in leadership positions at organizations of all types – are still sitting on the sidelines of the digital movement. There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is that we continue to be mired in an economic malaise that causes many people to be reluctant to take risks and/or venture into still mostly-uncharted waters.
Throughout the past year there were a number of discussions about the importance of socially (and digitally) savvy leaders, as well as a few related research studies and reports, but generally speaking there was much more talk than action. Toward the end of the year, however, I started getting a stronger sense that leaders recognized they couldn’t ignore the trends and/or put off action any longer. Interestingly, the continued integration of social media into modern life was unlikely to have influenced them much. From my perspective, in fact, I think the (perceived) dominance of social media has been one of the key factors holding them back. The rise of mobile technology and cloud computing, however, as well as growing talk about big data and analytics, has piqued their curiosity – and their appetites – and has probably been a much bigger factor in their changes of heart.
The vilification of social media has continued, but with less heat and volume, primarily because the honeymoon is effectively over. That doesn’t mean social media is going away. It just means that it’s now generally viewed more as a utility or a commodity than a novelty, much as we view other utilities like electricity and commodities like email. The fact that we no longer put Millennials/Digital Natives on super-high pedestals when it comes to new technology may be a result of this shift. We’ve come to realize that digital engagement is much more about hard work than fun, as well as something that requires a broader skill set and judgment that comes from years of experience. It’s much easier to learn the technical details of a technology tool than it is to gain wisdom and perspective…
But we’re still a long way away from “getting” what new technology is all about and realizing its potential benefits, especially in professional and organizational settings. More to the point, we haven’t made the necessary behavioral shifts. Old habits die hard – but it’s more than that. The gap between what technology can do and how humans can harness and leverage that technology continues to grow. The lack of knowledge and understanding, combined with critical deficiencies in digital competencies, is perhaps the biggest obstacle to moving forward. Without a significant shift in attitudes toward education and training, both generally and specifically in the area of digital literacy, it will become increasingly difficult to bridge that gap.
The ROI challenges continue (more on that here), but they seem to have lessened as well, perhaps in part because of the shift toward viewing new technologies as utilities, and in part because of a growing recognition that the environment is too dynamic and evolving to apply specific metrics in any meaningful way. That’s not to say that return on investment is not important, but people seem to be slowing down and trying to address the question in more strategic, thoughtful, and deliberate ways. It’s no longer just about “bang for the buck.”
Although there hasn’t been an express movement toward private digital networks, there has been an increasing recognition that public platforms cannot be relied on as exclusive or even primary engagement channels, especially when it comes to internal and other private communication and collaboration. And as more software vendors and service providers adapt their offerings to include social elements, there will be an increasing number of viable options that help organizations reap the benefits of new technologies while minimizing their risks. This shift can also be seen as an indicator that we’re maturing from an emphasis on splashy, disruptive technologies to those that can extend and enhance existing competencies.
Finally, when it comes to risk management, there doesn’t seem to have been much change on that front in 2012. Many organizations still lack adequate policies, procedures, training and guidelines to mitigate Digital Era risks.
All things considered I view 2012 as a mixed bag. There were lots of encouraging signs, especially toward the end of the year, but no real dramatic changes with respect to new technology adoption by professionals and in organizations. We are still far from the tipping point… Although resistance to new technologies has lessened, that doesn’t mean we’ll see a dramatic increase in adoption any time soon. There are still a number of barriers to be overcome, including global economic challenges, limited resources, conflicting priorities, lack of time, relatively few success stories that leaders can relate to, and the general lack of a roadmap or established best practices. The journey ahead will continue to be long, slow and rough. But traverse it we must…
We must continue to pay attention to trends, watch industry titans, and listen to thought leaders, but we must remember that although what they do and say are extremely important, their actions and views are not necessarily representative of the world most of us live in. They are explorers, adventurers, and prospectors – and they occupy space on the leading edge of the digital movement. Most of the world, however, is comprised of people who have only just begun to think about leaving the comfort of a civilization they know to become pioneers, settlers, and immigrants in a world that seems as full of dangers as it is of possibilities.
WIIFM (What’s In It For Me?) will remain a powerful motivator. No amount of reasoning, cajoling, selling, threatening or teasing can make someone change if they don’t want to. As we strive to find ways to move forward, this question must constantly be top of mind, regardless of what form it takes. It lies at the root of every challenge, every point of resistance, every criticism… and every advocate, proponent and change agent must be able to answer it – not from their own perspective, but from the perspective of others. Put another way, to help others think outside the box, champions must think inside the box.
But for me above all else, we must educate.
Change in the Digital Era: Bridging the Gap
Ideally, the relentless pace of change would start to relent, and we’d have time for humans and human systems (legal, operational, educational) to catch up to technology’s capabilities. All this digital power becomes useless (or worse – potentially destructive) if we aren’t capable of harnessing and managing it properly.
But there is no end in sight to the changes taking place. Technology is advancing far more rapidly than the vast majority of humans and human systems that need to embrace and adapt to the brave new world we’re creating, which means that the digital divide is growing. There are lots of reasons for this, but at some point we have to declare “no more excuses” and make a serious commitment to bridging – or at least narrowing – the gap.
After six years of immersion in and commitment to addressing the opportunities and challenges created by social and digital technologies, I can attest that bringing about the necessary human changes will be neither easy nor fast. I’ll continue to fight the good fight, however, by sharing resources and offering SMART Solutions and Learning services to both individuals and organizations.
The concept of digital transformation really resonates with me, and I think the keys to bringing it about are strong and digitally sophisticated leadership and a digitally literate workforce. Fundamental to everything we do is a belief I shared at the end of my 2013 essay:
Above all else, we must educate.