American author David Foster Wallace gave the commencement address at his alma mater, Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, in 2005. He opened with an analogy about two young fish swimming along, when an older fish passes and asks them, “How’s the water?” Later, one of the younger fish turns to the other and asks, confused, “What’s water?”
Wallace’s point was that sometimes we see something so often that we fail to notice it, even though it’s all around us. Sometimes we just don’t know anything else – we’ve been surrounded by something for as long as we can remember, so we lose sight of the fact that it’s there at all.
This has happened with digital technology. From the perspective of our markets and customers, there has been so much social, political and behavioural change in the past few years, driving what was already a rapid transition to digital-first engagement with brands, services, and products, into something that is happening even faster. In some cases, digital-first is becoming digital-only.
Digital has become ubiquitous. Like water to fish.
As customers ourselves, many of us haven't even been really aware this was happening. We are human beings, with ordinary cluttered lives. It hasn’t felt like a sprint to new channels, but that’s what has happened.
Digital technology has developed over the past 20 years, primarily as a marketing tool, often owned by marketing or technology teams. This was fit for purpose in the old world, but now we find ourselves in a climate of such rapid change that this approach is starting to show its age and limitations. While customers have already accepted digital as the new ‘water,’ much of the rest of the business world is struggling to keep up.
Historically, a program-based, IT-owned and marketing-operated digital approach has been successful, but in the past few years, we’ve seen digital become the de facto first – and for many, only – contact point for customers to engage with brands. The world is changing faster than we can predict, and faster than many can respond with these old models. We need a new way to lead, develop and optimise.
How does that change the perspective on the established approaches? If digital is now the new ‘water,’ how do we need to frame questions that will enable us to meet emerging challenges and ride new opportunities? How does this change how we look at and operate digital technology in our organisations?
We will need an evolutionary set of objectives and solutions – ones that adapt, change, are light on their feet, and are driven from the front-line as much as from the boardroom. They will need to recognise and celebrate the diversity of customers, market and colleagues, as well as deliver to the individual at all levels from the empowered employee to the needs of an individual customer.
Digital technology needs to be something everybody does, feels comfortable with, is tooled up for, and builds excellence in. Our role as leaders is to provide the conditions to enable this capability to flourish, and to ensure that learning is retained and best practices encouraged. As important as providing platforms and guiding processes, is learning to let go a bit.
Too often, digital teams within organisations are still setting themselves up for robustness and certainty, but flexibility is really what they need the most. As economic headwinds become even less favourable, the tendency is to roll back on the new and retreat into what they know works. While that might bring reassurance, there is a growing realisation that this might be a false comfort in tomorrow’s world.
It is this need for a data-led evolutionary approach that Netcel has explored in the report From Digital Transformation to Digital Evolution: Survival of the Quickest and the launch event in London with Optimizely. Here we look at the responses from several hundred leading digital professionals from across a range of enterprises and organisations and frame some ways forward based on looking at digital as a continuous optimisation rather than a final destination. These included:
- Setting clear objectives and understanding what digital means for you
- Understanding the behaviour of your market and audiences
- Designing coherent content-led customer experiences
- Technology platforms
- Capabilities and skills
- Culture leadership and governance
Digital is a great opportunity to experiment with what writer and economist Nicholas Naseem Taleb calls ‘antifragility’ – the concept of building systems that welcome ambiguity and the challenges it brings, ones that strengthen when under pressure.
In the last three years we have had a pandemic, political upheaval, and global economic challenges. There’s no reason to think this rate of change is slowing. The winners will be those who can empathise, lead, adapt and evolve. We should be building an outlook that views past challenges as a force for making our future organisations, communities and business models stronger – and digital will be right at the heart of that, across every department and customer touchpoint.
For the leaders, digital really has become water. How is it for you?
Deane Barker is global director of content management at Optimizely and Dom Graveson is director of strategy and experience at Netcel
This article was originally published in the Autumn 2022 issue of Technology Record. To get future issues delivered directly to your inbox, sign up for a free subscription.