The word digital means different things to different people. It’s computers and mobile devices. It’s the web and websites and apps. It’s email and file sharing and collaboration. It’s in our hands and in the cloud. It’s bolted-on or built-in, something you do or something you must be, something you hire for or something all your people must ‘get’.

Regardless of how your organization sees it today, digitalization is both a transformation of itself and the most significant investment you will make to transform your organization’s future facility to sense and respond to the world around it.

See Digital Transformation.

Digitalizing the pre-digital

When we bring things into the digital realm, we digitalize the pre-digital – after all that’s all we’ve known. That’s how we went from mail to email, and from having desktops, files and folders to, well, desktops, files and folders.

Only after the passing of many years, and sometimes decades, do we discover and develop the unprecedented qualities of the digital era. For example: migrating from filing to instant search and seemingly serendipitous discovery; from email to all variety of social / sharing / collaborating / chat platforms and services; from rules based decision software to artifical intelligence.

These days it’s unlikely that there remains any opportunity to secure competitive advantage in your market by digitalizing the pre-digital. In fact, as you’re still in business, we can assume you’ve attended to this at some length. With that said then, we should investigate and indeed imagine the unprecedented qualities of digital.

In 1999, Bill Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft, wrote:

How you gather, manage, and use information will determine whether you win or lose. … The winners will be the ones who develop a world-class digital nervous system, so that information can easily flow through their companies for maximum and constant learning.

A digital nervous system comprises the digital processes that closely link every aspect of a company’s thoughts and actions. … To think, act, react, and adapt.

This echoes Gregory Bateson’s 1973 definition of information as a difference that makes a difference. And what a difference!

It’s difficult to imagine now but just a couple of decades ago a criticism levelled at business performance management approaches such as the emerging Balanced Scorecard was that it was too expensive to collate and compile the information required. Data paucity was the problem of the 20th Century. Having too much of the stuff is the challenge and the opportunity of the 21st, and in many ways, as prescient as it was, Gates’ assertion here looks rather dated already.

Back then Gates referred to email as a critical component of the digital nervous system. We don’t lend it the same emphasis because we have more choices these days. He referred to the digital nervous system of the company whereas our nervous system extends out into the world as we instrument our homes, our offices, factories, towns and broader environment. He advised building an ideal picture of the information you need from technology. We also want technology to help us build that picture, indeed to help us identify new insights, new opportunities and new threats with unprecedented speed and perspicacity, unprompted.

Information flow is associated with information technology, yet of course we must also dedicate ourselves to understanding how influence goes-around-comes-around – ie. to the changing of hearts, minds and deeds. See The Six Influence Flows.

Humans have evolved powerful sensory perception, and computing now offers the perfect augmentation…

Patterns and abstractions

Here is Mark Anderson explaining the 2015 Future In Review conference theme:

The reason we’ve chosen the theme The Power of Patterns this year is because the science of Pattern Recognition has taken over most of what matters in the world of technology.

Knowledge building requires we find patterns in information, and it’s turning out that digital technologies are quite adept at this. Digital technologies help us conceptualize our world through the identification and abstraction of these patterns in ways that were simply impossible at the turn of the century let alone pre-digital.

See Knowledge Ecology and Quantified Organization.