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These days I read the word digital more than almost any other word in the dictionary. That includes pronouns.

Perhaps ironically, I’m going to add a few more instances as I pen this post. 

There’s an overwhelming desire to bring digital and digital thinking to the forefront of every conversation. Digital something or other has become the almost ubiquitous job title for everyone – or everything – in the business arena. If you don’t have it somewhere in your job description, it signals your Luddite credentials as openly as carrying a paper diary or a Blackberry.

There’s memes like this that pop up in LinkedIn 5 times daily.

And we’ve all seen Tom Goodwin’s excellent (often poorly plagiarized) slide that deftly highlights the real impacts of tech on business and business models.

Conversely there are UK ad agencies so keen to not pigeon-hole themselves as digital, they’ve taken to calling themselves interactive.

This shouldn’t surprise anyone.

The term digital marketing has seen almost exponential growth in the past four years. (Thanks GoogleTrends)

 

 

 

 

 

I suppose if we’d tried to determine the percentage of times Steam was used during the height of the Industrial Revolution I’m sure we’d have seen a similar phenomenon. Unlikely anyone then was calling themselves a Steam Ninja or Steam Guru though.

Yet in the midst of all the debates of “Is Digital a channel, a medium, an attitude, a philosophy blah blah blah” I remain perplexed at how much still seems to be about the bright shiny object and not the “why I should care” part.

The features, not the benefits.

The tool, not the task it is intended to accomplish.

And when confronted with a question like “why should we build this piece of tech?” the answer, often delivered with shrug, is typically “why not?”

Don’t get me wrong, I adore the tech industry. The brains it attracts. The bold advances it makes possible.  But somewhere in all this coveting of code, many seem to have lost the plot and the ability to suitably answer, “to what end are we doing this?”

They’ve forgotten the human side of the equation.

The humans that have grown so tired and pissed off at the constant barrage of digital advertising on every screen that they’re routinely installing ad-blocking software just to rid themselves of that irritation. The entire promise of digital – and phrases like “digital body language” – was that we wouldn’t be subjected to stuff we didn’t care about anymore. Digital promised the ultimate “personalization” of content and offers. And the eradication of junk.

Disappointingly digital is capable of that personalization but there remain cowboys who steadfastly ignore that opportunity. If its any consolation, the ANA reckons programmatic ad fraud will cost advertisers $7.2billion in costs for ads never even be seen by a human.

What about the Utopia offered by that pinnacle of digital thinking, aka social media? 

An inter-connected world where, separated by less than six degrees from all our other human brethren, we’d live in peace and tolerance? Well, sadly, it would seem that the pesky algorithms that are the backbone of many of our digital lives (Amazon, FB, Expedia and this site of course) do a better job of making our worlds, networks and opinions smaller, not bigger. Algorithms serve many purposes but exacerbating our confirmation bias can’t be one of them. Reducing our worldview can’t be expanding our humanity can it?

What about those humans terrified at what happens to all that personal data we’re hoovering up – ostensibly to help deliver more of those customized marketing programs. Personal data that we’re unable to keep safe and secure. Personal data that collected for one reason is then sold on to spammers subjecting us to invasive and unwarranted marketing. Pew Research recently released a pretty dismal (and scathing) report into the fears of Americans about privacy and security. It makes for alarming reading particularly because it seems that Joe Public just doesn’t trust corporations and the government to treat their data appropriately. Put another way, to treat them humanely.

Of course, I’m not just talking about the humans we blithely call customers and consumers.

I’m talking about those other humans too.

The ones we call colleagues and co-workers.

We (rightly) obsess about UX, abandoned shopping carts, click-paths, gamification, frictionless-not-sticky interactions for the customer. All critical components to deliver “meaningful and resonant” digital experiences. And build that bank of eyeballs and dollars.

But what of our human colleagues and co-workers?

The ones we’re putting under increased pressure and scrutiny to respond to customers at the speed of the internet? Do they have the necessary information – and authority – to respond cogently and effectively? Is our organization’s culture and design genuinely optimized for this scenario?

The one’s we’re asking to work in entirely new, and often untested, ways. Avant-garde companies like Zappos are going all out on Holocracy and a flatter more collaborative environment, but these new environments are harder in practice to execute than they are in theory. Certainly the rash of recent departures at Zappos suggest that it takes a tremendous amount of patience and dexterity to change how people work together in this new world.

And, how about those colleagues and co-workers increasingly seeing the specter of automation and the genuinely terrifying idea that a robot may be taking their jobs away? How are we humanely training and growing their abilities to address this? If you want a very real sense of how automation might take your job, then I’d encourage you to visit this BBC website.

In short, in this new digitally-driven business environment, are we just as quick to adapt our cultures and organizations internally as we are to address the needs of our external customers?

Ultimately, I wonder how hard it will be to live up to the promise and potential of this Fourth Industrial Revolution if we conveniently forget our basic humanity.

As always, I’d love your thoughts and opinions guys. Is this merely a period of growing pains or are we in danger of forgetting our humanity as we chase the allure of a digital everything future?