Digital transformation: But can you touch it?



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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.




Re-evaluating your GIS

I recently wrote a new post over at Exprodat, discussing the conundrum of how to deal with unlimited technical options:

“In a world where everything is possible, you must first consider your true needs”.

Link here.

An edited version of this piece, customised for the marine sector, has also appeared in the quarterly magazine of The Hydrographic Society UKSoundings (paywall).

Stuff that lasts a lifetime: What today’s tech world could learn from its ancestors

Last weekend an advert by mobile operator, O2, caught my attention. It proclaimed that “2 years is too long” to wait for a new phone. Customers should be “more dog” and sign up for an unlimited supply of phone upgrades.

I guess one day an archeologist will dig up this advert and understand what caused our civilisation to end. A new breed of dog will have wasted rare earth elements like a flash in the pan, all in the name of a futile and doomed quest for endless gadgets.

Technology will always progress, of course. But why do even minor, incremental improvements have to make things obsolete that aren’t broken?

The design life of so-called ‘smart’ phones and other personal gadgets is typically 18 months. This is less than a good pair of socks. The tech world is literally expecting us to replace expensive electronics more often than our sets of underwear. Are they losing the plot?

In my mind, smart technology is stuff that doesn’t need replacing until it’s literally bitten the dust. It should be built to last, and able to cope with future upgrades and foreseeable use cases until it naturally reaches the end of its physical life. At which point its components should be entirely reused or recycled.

I recently took a look around the house to see what items have survived years or even decades of (ab)use, and lived to tell the tale. What might we learn from these?

A small collection of stuff made to last.

Take my old Nikon camera. It’s the kind that takes a roll of film, lets you adjust speed and aperture with tactile knobs and dials, and delivers a satisfying “click-clonk” when you press the shutter. It’s the sound of built quality. After 10 years of taking digital snaps with conveniently lightweight but flimsy devices, I had forgotten how good the Nikon feels. But why should it now be obsolete? Digital or not, the physical principle behind photography is still the same. So why not develop a kind of digital film that fits exactly where the analog one used to go? The camera body and lens are so well-made, they’ll last forever.

Then there’s a few Swiss-made items: my self-winding wristwatch which never runs out of battery (because it hasn’t got one), a compass which will always point north (thankfully), and a pocket knife that’s been with me on every trip for the last 15 years. These devices all keep going and going because they’ve been single-mindedly designed for a specific use case, and never run out of power.

Interestingly, however, my longest-serving gadget is digital. The Hewlett-Packard 42S, a programmable calculator, has served me for over 21 years. It still does the job as well as when it first computed a least squares resection on a land survey field course in the Australian bush, all the way back in 1993. With its reassuringly solid keys and timeless design it proves that digital does not have to mean disposable.

I’m hoping my iMac, bought in 2008 and made of a bomb-proof aluminium construction, might go the same way. But I doubt it. Apple will want me to buy a new one soon and so, despite its solid build, this computer will one day choke on a reckless, one-size-fits-all OS upgrade. But what will I do with a perfectly working £1,000 machine whose only crime is not to have enough RAM? This could be fixed with a tiny piece of silicon if the design had catered for unlimited memory upgrades.

Instead we’re being offered unlimited greed, laziness and stupidity, solving problems we never knew we had, and leaving behind growing mountains of e-waste that are spiralling out of control.

Why do we inflict this upon ourselves, when quality stuff is much more fun to use, and a better investment long-term? And there is real joy in using well-crafted items: they have soul.

To achieve this with computing gadgets, hardware will have to be designed such that it is a more permanent container for disposable software, not the other way round. That kind of technology would truly deserve the ‘smart’ label. The alternative is, we won’t become more dog — we’ll simply go to the dogs.

Postscript 15/04/14: Atanas’ calculator is still going strong after 35 years!