The Digital Transformation Diaries: Dumbfounded by digital disruption

Ian Patterson's picture
by Ian Patterson
Ian Patterson Ian Patterson

For the next few weeks, Ian Patterson, who leads the UK Digital Transformation offering at The Digital Consultancy is writing a weekly Digital Transformation Diary exclusively for Prolific North.

Patterson worked for more than a decade in the North West, leading teams and projects at the likes of BJL, Guardian Media, MoneySuperMarket and Studio North.

Has the world really changed THAT much?

Dumbfounded by digital disruption

I’ll be the first to admit my astonishment at the pace of change with all things digital and online. You only have to watch an episode of BBC Click or The Gadget Show to hear yourself muttering “Well I never”. The Internet, for those of us who worked on the beta version (that’s pre dot com bubble) has broken through to mainstream life with a relentless and unabating ubiquity. Even if you decided to close all your online accounts and cut off your Internet access, your life will continue to fundamentally benefit from technology in a thousands different ways, on a daily basis.

googleThere was a time clients used to ask me what technology or online fad to recommend. To which I’d always answer, with the genuine caveat “you never know what Google will announce tomorrow”. This became a theme for my career and led to an obsession helping people deal with the changes and challenges associated with digital technology, across all aspects of business. Now more commonly known as Digital Transformation.

If the people who work day-in-day-out in ‘digital’ are amazed by the scale and pervasiveness of this evolution, you have to wonder what those outside of marketing, PR, media and technology think?

Three attitudes to digital disruption

First of all, let me say that digital advocates and early adopters have not made it easy. There has been way too much tech-talk (geeking out!) jargon and sales gloss in my experience, with not enough effort to make the digital revolution accessible, relatable or achievable for real people. Our ‘digital utopia’ was supposed to yield quicker, more exciting, cheaper and limitless opportunity, but when I speak with people who don’t sell digital services, they are more likely to say things are more complicated now, time consuming and stressful, with digital in general perceived as a risk to business as usual.

Is it any wonder that we see a real mixture of feelings when it comes to adopting, responding and adapting to digital change? In my experience people sit in three main camps…

1. Digital-denial
A very understandable and common attitude towards digital adoption is similar to early acceptance of climate change, just wishing it was never mentioned and leaving it as late as possible to do as little as needed. Interestingly, people in this camp usually understand all-to-well the extent at which they would need to change to fully take control of their digital destiny. It’s this realisation that holds them back from actually pressing go on the project. Fear of the unknown, unexpected costs, introducing new digital people into the mix, who may not understand the core business, is a heady mix for any senior team.

2. Over-eager
I’ve met lots of over-enthusiastic digital advocates in my time. You can usually see it in their eyes when you meet them for the very first time, sat wide-eyed trying to soak in every word. Typically of the younger generation, I will go as far to say that being too gung-ho can be almost as destructive as doing nothing at all. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m all for trial and error and learning by mistakes, but the down side of being too militant about digital is to let the subject cloud your judgment and loose focus of the core business objectives, heritage, values or perhaps to over commit to too many projects. I’ve worked with a few people who desperately want to learn everything they can about digital, so they can move on in their career, with less consideration for achieving things where they are right now.

3. Scare-monger
A few examples spring to mind when I think of those keen to judge how behind the curve we all are. The unfortunate thing is that people in this camp are most often self-acclaimed digital specialists. I once witnessed a digital expert preaching at (that really is the best way to describe the one-way conversation) a very successful business owner of some 30 years. The subject happened to be content marketing, and the owner had never invested in their website, with all marketing and sales conducted face-to-face or over the phone. The digital expert was very animated and obviously very enthusiastic about his work, but the business owner just couldn’t see the sense of urgency, given he had such an amazingly successful business – why did he need to change a thing, and why did he need to do it ‘right now!’ People are naturally cautious of technology so preaching and demanding change is not the best starting point, because it quickly isolates and alienates people. Phrases like ‘digital dinosaurs’ or ‘digital Darwinism’ have their place in expressing a sense of urgency, but don’t help win hearts and minds.

In next week’s instalment of The Digital Transformation Diaries, I’ll be asking ‘Are you a digital change agent?’

Ian Patterson is the head of digital transformation at The Digital Consultancy. Over the last 16 years, he's led digital projects and teams at Cable & Wireless, Rapp Collins, and Guardian Media Group.

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