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  • Grant Thornton

Is it time to rethink “digital”?

What the evolution of the digital age means for business

Is it time to rethink “digital”?

A few years ago, Michael Lebowitz’s Brooklyn-based marketing agency, Big Spaceship, took a small but radical step: It dropped the word digital from its name. The agency still relied on all of the same digital tools and platforms as its competitors who proudly trumpeted their digital bona fides. But Big Spaceship determined it wasn’t useful to use the term as a way of differentiating itself.

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“We dropped it because if you’re not digital, then who the hell are you in the marketing world?” says Lebowitz, Big Spaceship’s founder and CEO. “You don’t say that you’re a hammer- and saw-driven construction company, right?”

It used to be that “digital” was shorthand for the future. It meant cutting edge, speed, high tech. Today, however, digital applies to just about everything: the music we listen to, the shows we watch, the purchases we make, the social media we share, the apps we can’t live without, the programs we rely on for work. And on and on.

So, in an age when everything is digital, what does it even mean anymore to be “digital”? For some, it means quantum computing and AI-driven innovations; for others, it simply means embracing the tools that make our working lives so much more efficient and connected. “In many ways, digital is just business as usual,” says Chris Smith, principal and head of the strategy and transformation practice at Grant Thornton. “We’re at a place where everything digital is integrated so seamlessly into our lives. So, the obvious question is, what’s next?”

THE FUTURE OF DIGITAL

In the late ’90s, static webpages wowed us. Ten years later, smartphone apps and dynamic content pushed our digital world forward. In 2019, we’re embracing emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things (IoT). So where will the digital era be five or 10 or even 20 years from now?

Roy Nicholson, principal at Grant Thornton’s advisory practice and leader within the firm’s digital transformation and management practice, is focused on the digital horizon. For his part, Nicholson believes the next wave will involve taking advantage of all the data that digital innovations have made accessible. For instance, combining healthcare data from a variety of sources, including electronic medical records and clinical trial results, may help identify better treatment strategies for patients. “All sorts of disruptions are coming because we’re able to intelligently get insights from data that we’re finally getting in one place,” he says.

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And while the maturation of the digital age will bring plenty of advancements, it also will bring some refinements. Garry Golden, a futurist and corporate consultant, points out that we’re only now starting to grapple with some of the thorniest issues of the digital infiltration of our lives, such as privacy, data control, and the addictive nature of certain digital experiences. He believes the next wave of conversations around digital issues will include questions about regulations and the need for more humanistic—and less addictive—design. “Maybe we’re starting to move from the teenager phase of a digital society into the adult phase,” he says.

DIGITAL GROWS UP

As the digital era continues to mature and evolve, the questions that keep C-suite executives up at night are: Are they keeping pace, let alone ahead of the game? Or will they get left in the digital dust? After all, companies and industries have taken different routes in the digital era. The tech industry has obviously been ground zero for digital innovation. Other industries, such as healthcare and energy—as well as government—have been much slower to embrace the digital era.

But these days, even the laggards are moving quickly to tap into the promise of data. Cities are taking advantage of IoT-enabled tools to redirect traffic flows and optimize city services. Energy companies are applying state-of-the-art computing methods to reimagine the oil-exploration process. Healthcare companies are leveraging digitized medical records to boost efficiency and deliver better care to patients. “The pace at which they’re catching up and the rate at which they’re investing in modernizing is quite phenomenal,” Smith says.

But even if the pace of adoption is slow, the key for companies is to be aware of which way the digital winds are blowing. Lebowitz of Big Spaceship says that while digital is no longer a necessary qualifier for marketing firms, companies face risks if they fail to stay abreast of shifting trends. Consider the marketing firms that are spending their clients’ huge ad budgets sifting through social-media data to better understand millennials. “A lot of value has been ascribed to this data,” Lebowitz says. “But what if people stop sharing every piece of their lives through social media? If you look at Gen Z, their online behaviors are utterly different.” 

A FOCUS ON SUBSTANCE

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In the corporate world, it can be easy to get caught up in the digital hype. At its core, Nicholson says, digital transformation is an effort to achieve three goals:

  • To operate your business more efficiently;
  • To improve your customer and employee experience; and
  • To use technology to create new services and business models or enhance existing ones.

Yes, digital tools are a key part of how today’s companies operate. But the newest AI-driven chatbot or IoT-enabled sensor isn’t what will rocket your company past its competitors. In fact, an outsized emphasis on the digital part of that equation can distract companies from what they should be focused on: simply achieving those three goals. “These are just sound business principles that have nothing to do with digital,” Nicholson says.

Or, as Chris Smith puts it, companies need to focus on the fundamentals. They need to be agile and innovative to respond to competitive threats or seize new opportunities, and they need to remain customer-focused and able to analyze their operations. Whether these practices are described as “digital”—or some new buzzword that has yet to be coined—is beside the point. “These are the kinds of characteristics that define a modern enterprise, void of the word digital,” Smith says. “And those are characteristics that can stand the test of time.”

This article was created for and commissioned by Grant Thornton.

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