Over the past year you may have noticed two divergent trends.
First, the old buzzword ‘digital transformation’ has made a comeback.
Second, people are rediscovering their love of physical things. Sales of Moleskine notebooks have more than doubled while e-book readers are in decline. Print magazines, vinyl albums, and other retro things are in revival.
Recently I talked to an industry veteran with over 30 years’ experience in managing oil exploration permits. At some point I asked her whether digitisation had made life better compared to the paper-based approach that was common at the start of her career. Thinking about it for a second, she looked me straight in the eye and said… “No, actually.”
Apparently, digitisation had just replaced one set of issues with another, and subsequent IT upgrades had mostly become a case of two steps forward followed by one step back. Or two.
If you’ve read this far, don’t worry, this is not a post-mortem on why some digital programmes fail or succeed. That’s well documented and depends on many things (like, solving the right problems for starters).
There’s something else going on.
Physicality and tactility
It feels like people are still looking for better ways of doing things, but aren’t getting enough joy out of digital workflows alone. In digital transformation the keyword isn’t digital, it’s transformation. It implies radical change. But can this only be achieved through digital means?
People aren’t robots. We prefer each other’s company to conference calls (as brilliantly highlighted by this comedy sketch). We like touching real things rather than digital screens, like the grain of wood or the textured pages of a beautiful magazine. And, as every child knows, we love to create things with our hands.
But after years of staring at digital screens we had forgotten that fact – hence the backlash and revival of all things vintage.
Focus and simplicity
New products like the Punkt phone or Freewrite typewriter show that people crave workflows that are simple and focused, without distractions. A non-smart phone that can only make calls and send texts; a digital typewriter that lets you do no more than write down words and save them to the cloud. And these devices are built to last.
This may explain why some paper-based information management practices have survived the digital transformation age. Every emergency response room I’ve seen is still equipped with paper maps, alongside real-time data feeds. Architects still draw in sketchbooks and build physical models to develop visions and ideas, despite 3D modelling software. Air traffic controllers still fall back on paper strips to direct planes, together with radar and GPS.
The best of both worlds
Digital tools enable us to automate and monitor things. They make information searchable and shareable, so it can be found, integrated and analysed.
Physical tools enable us to focus on the task at hand, and derive joy from working.
The key, then, must lie in hybrid workflows that combine the best of both worlds. This is also evident in the trend of single-purpose apps. Rather than deploy clunky portals that tried to do everything, platforms now allow us to appify workflows one use case at a time.
So next time we talk about digital transformation, let’s not forget that people still like real things.
This post first appeared on my LinkedIn blog.