Gotta catch ‘em all, or, a story about digital transformation in four movements

Over the past month I’ve been fortunate to work with some very capable senior leaders in organisations facing the amorphous challenge of “digital transformation”. At first I struggled to nail this jelly to the wall. I had to account for why, if the change is driven by computers and the internet, the solutions so often involve people and Post It notes. The story below has emerged through the telling as I’ve attempted to herd those human and non-human actors together…

1. The water in which we all swim

Rochester High Street - Nov 2010 - Candid Leopardskin Dress Mature

Walk down any street in the land and see how quickly you can spot the following:

  • A person walking while using a smartphone (give yourself 2 points)
  • Free public wifi (3 points)
  • A digital display screen (5 points)
  • A telco’s fibre broadband street cabinet (8 points)
  • A hashtag on a poster (10 points)

A decade ago these thing hardly existed. Now they are so unremarkable that we hardly notice their ubiquity.

“Wired is NOT a magazine about computers or the internet — which is now the water in which we all swim.” — Wired magazine contributor guidelines

With this ubiquity come new user needs and increased expectations: to be able to do everyday things digitally with ease – always on, in the context I choose, wherever I happen to be at the time. The “Martini proposition” has come to pass more completely than the cheesy futurists of the mid-Noughties ever imagined.

How quickly has our wonder at being able to get online without wires given way to indignation that there are still places where this is not possible! Once wifi hotspots were a “value added service”. Today “notspots” are a public policy issue. 

But there’s more: a whole new way of relating to the world.

  • Less forward planning: “Text me when you get there” not “Meet at noon under the station clock”
  • More ambient awareness: “I liked your status update” not “Thank you for your letter”
  • The levelling effect of information abundance: “If you liked this video, subscribe to my Youtube channel” not “Coming next on BBC1”

To older generations the new blitheness may seem misplaced, gauche, disrespectful even. The history graduate in me prefers a longer view. These changes mark a natural reversion to human norms, a long overdue riposte to the machine-age tyrannies of clocking in and clerical work and one-size-fits-all mass media.

Old or new, this culture shapes our expectations of all organisations, whether they be businesses, charities, governments, political parties, whatever. As users, we expect digital service to respond with productive informality – spontaneous, personal, collaborating as our equal – just like our real Facebook friends do.

Where am I going with all this? Believe me, it has big implications for organisations’ IT strategies.

2. Sharks Must Swim Constantly or They Die!

With this rising tide of expectations and changing social norms, people demand that organisations of all kinds be always-on and spontaneous, personal and collaborative. In service design and delivery we need to put users at the centre – often diverse, complex, contradictory users. No two days will be the same because the mix of users and their specific needs is constantly changing.

I’m no accelerationist. The direction of social change matters more to me than the perceived advance of technology. But we’ll never be responsive enough if every change has to be made manually or mediated by the cumbersome apparatus of 20th century programme offices and project management.

It is said that if a great white shark stops swimming it’ll die from lack of oxygen. Big organisations that can’t respond at their customers’ pace deserve to meet an analogous fate.

So it’s just as well that the pesky computers and networks that caused this headache in the first place can also help us to cure it.

  • The cloud is just a commercial model, a more flexible way of buying access to computing power and storage: “Give me 5 minutes, I’ll spin up a new production environment” not “We’ve raised a purchase order for the new servers to be installed in the data centre next month”
  • Continuous integration is a fancy way of saying we run services with rapidly evolving software: “All the automated tests are passing this afternoon” not “we’ve booked 2 weeks of testing just ahead of the go-live milestone”
  • Open source software and open standards make it easier than ever to stand on the shoulders of giants: “I’ve fixed your code and raised a pull request” not “We’ll do an impact assessment if you file a change request”

Together these technology patterns form a powerful, automated and efficient platform for more responsive business. By standing on this platform, we’ll be better placed to meet our customers’ demands in the moment, and to shift with them when they change.

So what’s stopping us? Maybe it’s our tools.

3. The Jean-Wearing Post It Note Wranglers

“We become what we behold. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us” — John Culkin on Marshall McLuhan

In other news, Microsoft Office turned 25 years old last August. Let that sink in for a bit. Big, serious organisations have spent the past quarter century re-creating themselves in the image of PowerPoint, Excel, Project and Outlook. Tragically these tools were forged for a culture that no longer exists – a business world that reached its apogee just a few minutes before the birth of the World Wide Web. No wonder so many workplaces now feel like Life on Mars.

That’s where the sticky notes come in.

Haters gonna hate, but those “jean-wearing Post It note wranglers” have it right. They feel the urgency to harness change for their customers’ advantage. They understand that change means lots of small pieces loosely joined, scribbled, sorted, peeled off and repositioned every minute of the working day.

There’s more to it of course:

  • laptops that boot in seconds not minutes
  • wall-to-wall wifi for lag-free online collaboration
  • big screens to make performance visible in real time

Those things all help too, but by now they should really be hygiene factors. “Technology at least as good as people have at home” was the target when the Cabinet Office chose new kit for thousands of civil servants.

Often we find that sticky notes, whiteboard walls and Sharpie markers are the perfectly adapted tools for this way of working.

They are also an essential common currency within multidisciplinary teams. Business people may struggle to understand a technology architecture diagram; developers’ eyes may glaze over at a P&L statement. But they can all gather round and have a face-to-face conversation about a simple thought captured in felt tip pen on an index card.


4. Dress For the Job You Want

… we have come to value individuals and interactions over processes and tools — Manifesto for Agile Software Development

And so we come full circle: it turns out that the productive informality we increasingly expect of service providers is also a killer attitude for getting things done in teams.

  • Planning is best done a little and often: “What’s the next most important thing for us to do?” not “What dependences will impact our Gantt chart in 18 months’ time?”
  • Ambient awareness forms a greater part of governance: “I can see from your wall” not “I’m waiting for your monthly report”
  • Deference born of information scarcity is dead: “We worked it out together on the Slack channel” not “We saw the CEO’s strategy announcement on the Intranet”

The new culture is a work in progress, and it is far from perfect. The original Agile Manifesto authors were notoriously male and white. We need many more balanced teams in which diverse voices are welcome.

This matters because members of high-performing teams bring more of themselves to their work. Suits must mix with t-shirts, uniforms of all kinds considered harmful.

The broader its collective perspectives, the more empathy a team can build with all its users. What if users were in the room with us? Would they feel at home? Would they understand the words we use? Would they feel valued and respected?

Because workers are users too. And if the way we live our lives is changing, then so must the way we do our work. We can’t truly deliver one without the other.


This is the water in which we all swim.

  • The customer expectations
  • The automation and efficiency
  • The new (old) tools
  • The working culture of productive informality

If our organisations are to succeed, we can’t pick just one or two of them. Like Pokémon, we’ve gotta catch ‘em all.

Flickr Photo credits: Gareth Williams and Elen Nivrae. Thank you!

“That even space travel is now a reality”

And now for today’s news from the Department of Serendipity.

Quote Investigator digs diligently, delightfully and with positive results into the provenance of William Gibson’s lumpily doled-out future|present.

But the bit that stands out for me is Ralph Thomas’ 1967 criticism of Marshall McLuhan…

McLuhan suffers also from a mixed-up time sense. He believes the future has already happened. He often says most people can see thru the rearview mirror, but he seems to have the opposite fault. He appears to think total automation is upon us, that the whole world is linked as “global village” by TV, that even space travel is now a reality.

Meanwhile, 45 years and exactly six Moon landings into McLuhan’s future, this from Ed Booty of BBH London…

As we’ve explored and embraced the bewildering possibilities, we’ve increasingly convinced ourselves that a revolution is here. Meanwhile real peoples’ lives and needs simply aren’t changing at the same pace. What is possible is growing at an exponential rate, but how people actually live and use technologies has changed very little.  This gap between the myth and reality is ever-widening.

Mind that gap, people.

The pace of change

It has become a commonplace of our culture that we live in a time of accelerating change. Take this extract from Stephanie Rieger and Bryan Rieger’s dConstruct presentation.

Slides 52-56…

It took radio 40 years to reach a market penetration of 50 million…

by comparison we only had 10 years to ‘adapt’ to television…

while the iPod took only 5 years…

and Youtube less than 6 months…

Google+ may reach this milestone in less than half this time…

The rate of change is accelerating, exponentially, we are told. Old verities no longer apply. To which the historian in me cries out. How do you know? Were you there? And what’s the unit of measurement anyway?

Goaded by my Twitter followers after dConsruct, and by Ivor Tymchak’s pseudo-science, I offer this first draft. It’s an attempt to tell an alternative story about change in our culture, why it seems so rapid yet is probably much the same as it ever was. Also, critically, why the misperception is a bad thing and what we should do about it. You can tell me why I’m wrong, what I’m missing, and what I should read before opining on this subject again.

It goes like this.

Yes, there are isolated metrics that display exponential growth. Moore’s Law has held remarkably well on the terms of its clear and specific prediction: it says the number of transistors that can be placed inexpensively on an integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years.

Yet Moore’s Law says nothing about what people will do with that exponential power. Whether playing ‘Pong’ or ‘Call of Duty’ we still have the same cognitive capacities and number of eyeballs. Kurzweil? I’ll believe it when I see it. With my own two eyes.

Besides, these data points tend to conceal three sleights of hand.

First, they are highly selective by sector. While communications technology is undoubtedly in a period of flux, the same cannot be said of other critically important domains of everyday life, such as transport. Granted this is not your father’s cellphone, but the guts of the car you drive would be familiar to Henry Ford. I’m writing this just south of Grantham, travelling up the East Coast Mainline, where the Mallard clocked 125mph in 1938.

Individual sectors and regions may experience periods of rapid change, followed by plateaux of stability. But put them all together and I reckon the pace of change is, overall, quite constant. And anyway how would you measure it? The number of transisitors on an integrated circuit is a great measure for computing power but meaningless in the field of, say, sanitation. So it is with ham-fisted attempts to express pre-digital human creativity in the terms of bits and bytes.

Second, exponential change narratives like the Riegers’ play fast and loose with multiple layers of the same stack, with massively different degrees of significance and disruption. How can one seriously compare 50 million households hearing radio broadcasts for the first time with 50 million men, women, children and spambots taking a couple of minutes to sign up for free accounts on Google’s latest foray into social networking?

We could so easily tell the opposite story. Why not just chain together sequential inventions in the field of short messaging, from the 1794 Chappe telegraph to Twitter in 2006? 212 years! What took you so long, Jack Dorsey?

Jaron Lanier writes about these layers thus:

“Slow-changing layers protect local theaters within which there is a potential for faster change. In computers, this is the divide between operating systems and applications, or between browsers and web pages. In biology, it might be seen, for example, in the divide between nature- and nurture-dominated dynamics in the human mind. But the lugubrious layers seem to usually define the overall character and potential of a system.”

For reasons I’ll come back to, I think we tend to overplay the importance of those local theatres while being blind to the greater significance of the lugubrious layers.

Finally, as David Edgerton shows in his solid and empirical book “The Shock of the Old”, the use-histories of technologies are far more elongated than we’d expect. Finland, for example, reached peak horse only in the 1950s. When will we hit peak transistor? We cannot possibly know until some time after we get there.

There is one factor that is radically different today from any other time in history, and that is the size of the Earth’s human population. But the number of other people (mostly unknown to each other) does not of itself affect the individual human experience. Indeed one might argue that the global population boom is only made possible by stability in whole swathes of the world previously troubled by uncertainty and disruptive change.

I already blogged about the Economist’s breathtakingly simplistic equation of years lived to history made. At the time I made the point that the globalisation accompanying population growth erases the diversity on which change relies.

A billion drinks per day of Coca-Cola is an amazing thought, but such uniformity is a symbol of inertia, not dynamism. For the most part world trade still travels at the speed of shipping containers, not data packets.

And even if we focus solely on the world of information, of culture, fashion and memes, there’s some evidence that the move to digital can prolong the shelf-lives of media properties as much as it can churn them.

When digital downloads were first included in the music charts, it led to a resurgence of golden oldies, rather than the breaking of hitherto neglected new talent. As some in the music business fretted:

“…it’s entirely possible that you could end up with the top 10 in the singles chart entirely dominated by Beatles tracks.”

The remarkable thing about the Cheezeburger phenomenon is not so much its sudden arrival as its amazing longevity – who’d have thought captioned cats would still make an impact after all this time?

Meanwile we find that the past was actually rather good at moving ideas about.

The postal service of 18th Century England ran twice daily mail coaches between major cities. On a bad day that’s more frequent than I check my emails.

The Victorian Charles Mackay chronicled the viral spread of catchphrases:

“London is peculiarly fertile in this sort of phrases, which spring up suddenly, no one knows exactly in what spot, and pervade the whole population in a few hours, no one knows how.”

(“Has your mother sold her mangle?” is my favourite.)

Ideas could certainly be “in the air” without the aid of modern communications technologies – indeed the telephone is a celebrated example of simultaneous invention. It’s as if someone phoned up Bell the night before to tip him off about Gray’s patent.

Even the change trope itself goes back further than we might expect. I ran the Google Books Ngram Viewer for the phrase “accelerating change“. Turns out its rise began around the 1950s and peaked within the literary corpus back in 1970…

Accelerating change is not just a wrong idea, it’s an unoriginal one!

I’m fascinated by the new stuff in our culture, but it seems grossly arrogant, a disservice to past generations, to claim that our experience of change is quantitatively different. Try telling that to a farm worker in the time of enclosure, to a native of a newly “discovered” country, or to the people of a 1980s British mining village.

What explains this fallacy’s enduring appeal? Why does every generation feel as if it experiences change so much more acutely than its predecessors?

I think it has to do with perspective.

We humans see change as if looking through a window at a stormy night sky. Clouds rush by while the Moon appears a fixed point. In fact the Moon is hurtling by at 2288 miles per hour, much faster than the clouds. It’s just further away.

And because the clouds are moving, they draw our attention. We try to make sense of them, and see patterns in their random shapes. In a few hours the wind could turn and push the clouds a different way, but to us in the moment, they move in only one, inevitable direction.

So it is with the past relative to the present. Disruptive changes that happened long ago appear steady, motionless, shorn of their uncertainties and wrong turns, even though at the time there was nothing inevitable about their course.

Meanwhile the things that are changing around us stimulate our primitive motion-sensing reflexes. The new shiny grabs our attention at the expense of the far larger body of things that stay the same.

Add to this some features specific to our time.

One of the domains that is changing fastest right now is the media, the self-same media that drives the discourse around change, and likes nothing better than to talk about itself. How many more column inches have been expended on the disruptive changes in the newspaper business than on, say, the shift from supermarket shopping to online groceries?

The other peculiarity is the fine net curtain that separates culture and knowledge produced in the age of the Internet from everything that came before.

We’re now so much more likely to type something into a search engine than to leaf through the library’s card index that we discount the very existence of all that stuff in the library, even though it may be better quality or more fitting to our needs. Order the journal or cut and paste that random excerpt from Google Books snippet view? Track down the original on 12 inch vinyl or settle for the bedroom remix on MP3? You know what you should do, and you know what you will do.

Like a theatrical lighting effect, the stuff on the digital side of the gauze is so visible, so brightly illuminated, that it renders invisible everything on the pre-digital side. Before the internet there were no revolutions, no financial crashes, no volcanoes. The illusion is complete.

Does it matter that we flatter ourselves into believing we’re special?

Yes. It matters because of the way the exponential change narrative makes people feel. The idea of free-wheeling change disempowers individuals. It puts them at the mercy of forces they cannot control or even understand. It sends them the message that their past experiences count for nothing. It squeezes out critical thinking and softens them up for the change proponent’s chosen flavour of inevitability.

Because there’s always a therefore. Can you guess the source of this quote from the Riegers’ dConstruct presentation?

“events, threats and opportunities aren’t just coming at us faster or with less predictability; they are converging and influencing each other to create entirely new situations.”

Did you guess?

Step forward Samuel J. Palmisano, Chairman and CEO of IBM, who believes his customers seek to “learn from a company that itself had undergone continual change.”

In any era there are people who thrive on uncertainty and on telling others what to do. I know because I’m one of that tribe. If we’d lived 100 years ago we’d be tinkering with starter motors and leaded petrol, just because that was where the change was. 50 years ago we’d be clearing the cities for tower blocks and motorways because you can’t stand in the way of progress. Today it’s information technology. A century from now who knows.

The other risk, if we fall for the exponential change story, is that we never get beyond the low-hanging fruit. Real innovation surely stems from an appreciation of the things that are not changing fast enough, not from being caught up in the coat-tails of the market’s latest flight of fancy.

Edwin Land didn’t spend five years creating the Polaroid camera because he was scared of being left behind. He did it because his curiosity was piqued by his daughter’s impatience. “Why can’t I see it now?” she demanded.

So if you catch me, or yourself, or anyone else, expounding on the exponential pace of change, stop and ask for the evidence. Ask for the motivation. Ask if we mean to undermine people’s sense of authorship and agency.

More likely the changes that matter take decades. You – collectively we – do have the time to consider the implications and shape the direction. True, the only constant is change. But that’s OK, it was ever thus.

See also: Erm, excuse me, but I think Everybody was here all along