What is digital thinking?

In my last blog post I explored what digital capability meant in five overlapping dimensions – IT Skills, Work Practices, Tools, Leadership and Vision. If you read that post, and you’re wondering where I got to with the measurement of digital capability, my approach is focusing on IT skills as a, comparatively, easy piece to define and measure. This survey is almost ready to roll and will inform some of the more technical development of digital capability.

But it leaves a pretty nebulous piece of work to define some of those other aspects of organisational digital capability. Namely, digital ‘behaviours’ / ‘leadership’ / ‘thinking’. I’m using those terms interchangeably at the moment – for all intents and purposes they’re the same. I’m conscious that some people get put off by the word ‘leadership’, thinking it’s some sort of hierarchical thing. I’m of the opinion that anyone can be a leader. And we need more leaders. So, use what words you will, but I’ll just call it ‘digital thinking’ for now.

Speaking of words, I’ve put together a bit of a definition of what digital thinking means. And I’ll get to that. First, I want to give some context to why digital thinking is different to traditional ways of thinking and set the scene for how I’m defining it. And, because I’m lazy (ergo always looking to do the least work with the biggest impact), here’s something I prepared earlier – an excerpt from my talk on The Analytics of Purpose talk from the SUNZ Conference, Feb 2016.

Context for digital thinking

The proliferation of ‘digital’ is not just a change in technology. But a change in how we work and learn. For the last 100 years our work practices have been modelled off an industrial approach. Whereby, hierarchy, control and fragmentation are the defining characteristics of our workplaces.

New ways of working are emerging. Things like flexible work and people clouds. Where organisations can’t employ all the people they need, but bring together the skills needed when they’re needed, from different locations and different time zones. Where people come together to work on a common task and then disperse again. A report, from the Management Innovation Exchange, a digital hub for re-inventing management, summarises this:

Your colleagues aren’t necessarily the people who sit next to you at work, but rather the people who are working on the same problems with the same passion that you have. The organizations and leaders who figure out the most clever and compelling ways to connect those people and organizations will be the real winners.

This is a world where people connect over a common purpose. What Seth Godin calls Tribes – the people, not organisations that will shape and change our world. Where connections, communication and collaboration are creating shifts in power and control.

In the consumer landscape, this is customers telling stories about the products they buy. And purchasing decisions being made on ‘what my friend tells me’, or the recommendations of the people i follow on Instagram. Rather than the marketing spin, corporate curated message.

In the education world, this is students finding out information themselves. They’ll google it or watch a YouTube video. The teacher is no longer the expert and the holder of knowledge. They are now a mentor, a facilitator and a coach – looking after the holistic wellbeing of their students.

In the workplace, this is people telling the connections of their connections what it’s really like to work for you. But, it’s more than what they’re saying. It’s what they’re sharing. It’s using technology to create their own learning networks. Transferring information, and decision making, at speed, across and outside the organisation.

And then there’s what’s been labelled generation ‘Why’. The people we’re now leading and managing have different expectations to the generations that have come before them. They’ve got the basic necessities of life and they know what’s going on in the world. Technology gives them more freedom and free time. They’re searching for greater purpose and greater meaning in their lives. And seeing as we spend most of our time at work, they want to connect their own purpose with the organisation’s purpose.

Yeah, this is challenging. And it would be easy to blame technology, or the upstart, demanding, young people.

But the truth of it is that our world is now changing so quickly that we need the creativity and innovation that comes from people embracing who they are, their purpose. And we need the agility that technology both forces upon us and enables us to adapt.

Gary Hamel, one of the foremost business thought leaders of our time, argues that our current business models are not sufficient to survive and thrive. They’re just not adaptable enough. What we need are organisations that let the strengths of individuals shine, where employees have decision making power, and where businesses can flex more readily to the needs of consumers.

So, in this context, what is digital thinking?

There are key themes that keep coming up in the books, research and case studies around digitally capable organisations. So many, over so many years that I’ve been working in this space, that I can’t reference them all. Instead I’ve just written down all the ones that keep popping up. It’s a compilation of ‘all the things’, if you will.

What you should notice is that digital capability and digital thinking are more than ‘digital’. ‘Digital’ has implications for every aspect of how we do things. It’s a fundamental paradigm shift from more traditional ways of working and learning. The technology features, but it’s only one part of this.

These are fundamental principles that surround the use of digital technology in how we work, and learn, together, internally and externally.

Private and closed to open and transparent. Information is available anywhere, anytime, by anyone. The expectation of employees is that there is a certain level of visibility, and honesty, surrounding products and practices. Alongside this, we expect to participate with information rather than merely consume it. This opens up opportunities to build on each other’s work. But it also means we need to be comfortable with sharing work, ideas and resources, internally and externally. Potentially unfinished work too. And be open to accepting feedback and additions from others. The mantra is progress over perfection.

Hierarchies and silos to matrices and networks. People can connect with each other internally and externally, at speed. Information and decision making is dispersed, power shifts from the hierarchy to the network. In this environment, people connect over a common purpose. This has implications for how we structure organisations. It’s less about titles and departments, but more about converging over tasks or projects. Correspondingly we will see more use of contractors and fixed terms rather than permanent roles.

‘One size fits all’ to adaptable and personalised. There is less ‘delivering and directing’ and more coaching and mentoring. People are empowered to achieve results in their own way. This is also about technology stream-lining generic people processes and opening up room for personalising experiences.

A product orientated approach to an internal customer centric approach. Customer centricity has long been the domain of work principles such a lean, but it features even more prominently in digitally capable organisations. I’m talking about internal ‘customers’; understanding who they are, what they need to build value for your end customer (the one who pays your bills,) and collaborating with those internal customers to deliver results.

Status quo to innovation and agility. Change is not a one-off, but the ‘way we do things around here’. With that in mind, continuous improvement should be embedded into our work practices. Key competencies include flexibility of approach, and being brave enough to challenge. But this is also an environment that encourages individual’s strengths and diversity of thought.

Planning to experimentation. We fail fast; we get up and try again. Failure is a learning opportunity and viewed as a positive.

Process and rules to relationships and connections. Knowing who your colleagues are, I mean really who they are as human beings, is critical to achieving results. We value each other’s strengths and know how to tap into these. We’re not afraid to give, or receive, feedback and delivering that feedback strengthens relationships.

Controlling to empowering. We give people the decision making scope to take action. We collaborate and co-create with our people through parallel layers of interaction.

Money to higher meaning (purpose). We can articulate, and can help people connect to, the organisation’s purpose – deepening engagement. We do this by helping them uncover their own purpose and, in turn, build self-awareness.

Analogue to technology. Using technology to work smarter not harder. Connecting with each other through different communication, collaboration and co-creation channels. As well as blending work and life, and effectively managing the two.

Knowledge to networked intelligence. The ability to develop systems that support connection and information. As well as leveraging networks to find and use information. It’s not about what you know anymore, but who you know and what they will share with you.

Understanding you. How you fit in with all this, the unique strengths that you bring to the table. Who you are as a leader, whatever that might mean to you.

I think this is at least a start on defining what digital thinking is. The next trick is developing it. These are not incremental shifts but potentially transformational moves that are quite likely to make people uncomfortable.

I’d really like your thoughts. Is there anything you think should be included in this definition of digital thinking?

6 thoughts on “What is digital thinking?

  1. hvanameyde

    Thank you for the blog. It goes a long way to articulate digital thinking. We’re recruiting now for learning technology advisers (not my choice of title) and this will help people see what a good culture and environment will look like.

  2. Andy Swann

    This is really comprehensive! I don’t know that anything needs to be added, more that other ideas will emerge and flow as you go through that process of development!

  3. Pingback: Blog Post #1: Digital Thinking | Corrina Martinez

  4. David

    Great article! You’ve really broken down the components of digital thinking and I can’t wait to see these principles implemented in our organizations and the impact they’ll have.


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