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Why Should I Care About Digital?

When we think about “technology” or “digital” we tend to think in quite commoditized terms, thinking of “pieces of technology” such as machinery or computer devices, or web-based products and systems, and the wiring and circuit boards that make them function. It used to be that ‘digital’ was contrasted with ‘analogue’ technology, but with the Internet of Things now turning even the most basic household appliances into interconnected components of a “smart home”, that distinction has all but dissolved.

So, in a quite literal sense, when we talk about digital technology we are usually talking about tangible digital ‘things’. This way of thinking is further compounded by the ubiquitous, unrelenting commercialization and productization of digital technology that packages up, and sells, technology as a solution to virtually any problem you can think of.

There is nothing wrong with this, but it can make us think quite reductively about the role digital plays in our lives, and it can be particularly pronounced in a work setting. I often hear about the need for people to “engage with digital” as if it were something that we must all seek out and find a way to integrate into our lives. Considered in those terms, one could quite reasonably take the view that unless you are directly involved in developing, maintaining, or selling digital technology, having an understanding of digital is not really that relevant or important to your role. For most of us, at a time when we are all so busy, and needing to really focus on what’s in front of us, it does invite the question: Why should I care about digital?

I am a pragmatist and a realist at heart, so I’m not going to answer that question with platitudes or vague insistences that “digital is the future” and that we all need to “get with it”. Instead, I’m going to answer it with an anecdote about an angry man on a plane.

I heard a good story at a tech conference a few years ago during a discussion on customer development. A speaker recounted how she been on a transatlantic flight when an inflight passenger announcement went out saying the airline was delighted to offer, for the first time, inflight WIFI access for passengers. They were one of the first airlines to provide this service, and there was a ripple of impressed chatter and excitement from passengers as they pulled out their devices and tried it out. Sure enough, it worked. They could surf the internet, accessing the near infinite expanses of information, entertainment and social connectivity, while flying through the air at 600 MPH towards an exotic location half way across the world.

After a few minutes, the buzz of initial enthusiasm died down and people were checking their emails and Facebook feeds, without thinking much of it. Then, another passenger announcement. This time, an apology, as there had been a technical issue with the WIFI and they had to take it offline. The speaker said that a man sitting next to her, seemingly halfway through doing something, huffed angrily and threw his hands into the air. “This is $%!*@#!" he spat, infuriated at the inconvenience.

The point the speaker was making was that attempting to keep up with, let alone surpass, customer expectations is at best a never-ending sprint race, and at worst, a Sisyphus rock. Things that seemed revolutionary, unthinkable, mere moments ago, are quickly normalized, assimilated and unceremoniously woven into the fabric of everyday life.

Take a moment to reflect on the most recent technological innovations that have come into our lives. If we do pay conscious attention to them at all, 9 times out of 10 it is prompted by the anger and annoyance we feel when they don’t behave the way they are supposed to. I remember quite vividly the first time I held an iPad, and the genuine sense of wonder I felt at this extraordinary piece of technology. Now, the only time I am reminded of the technological wonders that power the iPad is when it does one of those annoying system updates, or when I can’t get the bloomin' Bluetooth working so that it will talk to my other devices.

As the rate of technological innovation increases exponentially, so do our expectations. And not just with regards to technology. Advances in digital technology, and the way those advances are being marketed and sold to us, are having a significant impact on our attitudes towards customer service in general. If we want something, there is an expectation of availability (someone, somewhere must have it and must be willing to give or sell it to me), immediacy (I should get an immediate response) and personalization (it needs to very specifically, exactly what I want, or it’s no good). “Millennials” are often accused of personifying the extremes of these demands, but as evidenced by the angry middle-aged WIFI man on the airplane, our levels of expectations are not hardwired into us by birth or upbringing – they are constantly evolving as the world around us evolves, and age has little to do with it.

I remember earlier this year, the day before going on holiday, I wanted to get hold of a very particular edition of a slightly obscure book that my friend had recommended to me, so that I could read it on the plane. I’ve never really been into the whole digital thing (no joke), so it had to be a print copy. I was in London, so I got my phone out and googled to check bookshops close to me that might have a copy. Sure enough, I was able to look up which specific bookshops had that specific book in store. I also checked the opening times of the stores and, how long it would take to get there using Google Maps. I checked the status of the tube lines. All good. Despite some delays on the Central Line that (infuriatingly) were not reported on the TFL app, I made it to the bookshop, bought the book, and made it home in time to check in online for my flight (I hate long queues). Relieved, I packed my book into my suitcase. I had got myself a nice print copy of the book, and, supported a local high street bookshop. Who needs digital, right?

What I have just described above is a pretty average customer experience. And that of course has become the generalized expectation (availability, immediacy, personalization), which we must now all endeavour to meet when interacting with our customers, whether they be researchers, academic institutions, professional organizations or students – regardless of anything to do with digital. We also put those expectations onto our suppliers, and they put them on us, which affects our relationships with them.

And you don’t have to work directly with external customers to experience the effects of digital on people’s expectations. According to recent research by Deloitte, our habitualized use of social media platforms is making us increasingly addicted to instant recognition and feedback, and we are bringing that addiction into the workplace. I’ll admit that whenever I post a new Insight post on Portal, I find it hard to resist the allure of clicking on that little update bell in the top navigation bar, showing the number of people that have read or reacted to my post. But the true impact of this growing obsession with feedback in the workplace is deeper, and subtler. A number of studies on employee engagement have shown that employees today demand regular, instant feedback on their performance, and they want their achievements to be recognized. Companies are catching onto this, and as a consequence are starting to overhaul their feedback processes. It’s another example of how social and professional norms are being challenged, and expectations are being redefined, without a 0 or a 1 in sight.

All this of course is set against the backdrop of some of the most powerful technologies crossing new thresholds, provoking renewed debate on how we moderate public discourse, how we define monetary value, what constitutes reality, and even what it means to be human.

Arguably the biggest challenge facing academic publishing right now is how digital has changed people’s attitudes to accessibility and availability of scholarly content. The Open Access movement has only been made possible by technological innovations allowing for online access to content, and shifts in societal attitudes rooted in the conception of the internet as a place for the free sharing of content and information, and it will continue to evolve as advances in digital publishing technology force us to ask ever-deeper and more complex questions.

Of course, with these new challenges come new opportunities. And there has never been a better time for all of us at T&F to be part of, perhaps even lead, the big, game-changing conversations. New techniques and methodologies made possible by digital technology have all but removed the barriers to entry for budding innovators wanting to put their ideas into practice and get real-time customer reaction and feedback to help them bring their innovations to life. Whether that’s a new product or service, business model, or an internal process improvement, it doesn’t need to involve technology, and you most certainly don’t need to do it by writing lines of code.

It’s not a question of choosing to engage or not with digital. Advances in digital technology are rapidly changing the world we live in, with profound and far-reaching effects. Within T&F, the extent and nature of our direct interaction with the digital technologies themselves will of course vary depending on our role and responsibilities, but if we aspire to understand the world we live in, and make a positive impact in what we do, we need to be awake to, and cognizant of, the forces that act upon us, and the challenges, opportunities and questions they present.

To come back to the angry many on a plane anecdote, I think it is very telling that the point a speaker at a technology conference chose to emphasize was not how far we have come technologically in developing commercially available inflight WIFI, but rather how such digital innovations are affecting human behaviour. I think it was because that’s the real impact of digital, and the part of the conversation we all need to be in.

The extent to which we pay attention to anything is that to which it has a perceptible impact on our everyday lives. Some of the impacts of digital are clearly visible, others are less so. Some are immediate, some will only become clear in the future. The truth is, we are all living, and contributing to, the impacts of digital, every day.

So why should I care about digital? Perhaps the answer is closer to home than we might think.

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