Are We Thinking About Digital All Wrong?

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I want to let you in on a secret — writing a book is a scary experience. You pour your heart into it and then wait for the reaction when it is published. You can be certain of only one thing: You will be criticized.

My book Digital Adaptation1 will soon be officially released, and I know a lot of clever people are going to disagree with what I have written. They are going to argue that I focus too much on digital and its characteristics and its implications and its impact on business and on the way we work and organize teams, when ultimately digital is just a tool.

If Digital Is Just A Tool

If digital is just a tool in our business arsenal, then it fundamentally alters how we approach this new medium. It will even redefine what your job should be. If digital is just a tool, we might not even need Web professionals. I can tell you now that from a certain point of view they are right to criticize me.

In fact, yes, at their most fundamental level, digital technologies such as the Web and mobile are just tools like any other we work with. Like electricity or the printing press, we can use these tools to achieve a business objective. For example, to persuade prospective customers to buy a product, you might get a brochure printed. This would require both the power of electricity and a printing press. Alternatively, you could build a website, send an email or create a Facebook page. Digital is just another tool in your arsenal.


Is digital really just a tool? Digital challenges companies to rethink and adapt their existing practices, and usually it’s not enough to see it as a tool alone.

Many argue that viewing digital in this way will shape a person’s thinking about how digital can be used and referred to. Suddenly, having a digital strategy or even a digital team sounds ridiculous. You wouldn’t have a brochure strategy or a team dedicated to managing electricity. Why, then, do you need a digital strategy or a digital team?

They go on to argue the dangers associated with thinking of digital as more than a tool. If we treat digital as special in some way, then we risk isolating it from the broader business. The digital team ends up doing its own thing, rather than helping the entire company make use of the tool.

If we create a separate digital strategy, they argue, then the danger is that, rather than helping to achieve the overall business strategy, we would distract or confuse it. Surely, the argument goes, devising a business strategy that draws on digital when appropriate makes more sense.

These are all completely valid points, and I entirely understand their logic. However, I passionately argue that we do need separate digital strategies and that we also need empowered digital teams. I take this approach because I believe that digital is more than another tool in our business arsenal.

Digital Is More Than A Tool

I strongly believe that describing digital as a tool diminishes its profound impact on the world we live in. Digital has transformed society, government, culture, business, media and more. Barely an aspect of our lives has not been touched in some way.

Therefore, when I write about forming a digital strategy, I am not referring to a strategy for using a tool. I am talking about forming a strategy to adapt to the fundamental changes that digital has brought upon society.

Take, for example, the power that the Web has provided consumers to identify competitors, recommend products and services to friends, and share their dissatisfaction when things go wrong.


Before the Web, if somebody was unhappy with a product or service, they could moan to their friends, but that was about it. Now, we live in a world where a dissatisfied customer has global reach!

That single change in customer behavior has incredible ramifications on how we do business. When a “tool” has that kind of power, it warrants special attention.

This isn’t the first time a tool has so radically transformed society. The printing press is another good example. The printing press enabled the Lutherans to spread their message and to challenge the dominance of the Catholic Church. As a result, the Vatican took the printing press very seriously. They understood that the key aspect was the impact of the tool, not the tool itself.

Companies today need a digital strategy to help them adapt to the change that digital has brought to the world. They now operate in the context of this new world, and they need a clear vision of how to adapt to it.

As long as companies think of digital as just another tool, they will fail to embrace the full potential of the Web and mobile. Many organizations are still trying to wrap their heads around the changes that these innovations have brought. They are still unsure of how to deal with them properly.

We Are Still Learning How To Use Digital

For a long time, the industrial revolution was driven by the power of steam and water. That required building factories near rivers. The mass availability of electricity did away with that need, and yet over a decade later companies were still building their factories next to water. The full potential of electricity had just not sunk in.

We are in a similar situation today. Most organizations are carrying on with business as usual, even though the world has changed around them. For companies to adapt to this new world, somebody has to disrupt the status quo. Somebody has to demonstrate the full scope of how digital has changed business and show people how to harness this new technology.


Most organizations are not aware of the full potential of digital. Mentally, they are still building their factories by the water.

This is a problem that the industrialists tackled by appointing Chief Electricity Officers. To our eyes, this might seem ridiculous because electricity is now so ubiquitous, but at the time it was crucial for helping organizations to adapt to this revolutionary technology.

For this same reason, we need digital teams and strong digital leaders today. Companies need expert help to adapt. They need fresh blood to disrupt the old ways of working and to encourage new thinking. In short, companies need digital leadership.

As I have written before2, this shouldn’t last forever. The digital team should exist primarily to educate, empower and support other business units. Companies will eventually adapt, and digital will become as ubiquitous as electricity. But until that day, we need digital champions to stop us from blindly building our factories next to water.

This is not to say that senior managers believe they are building by the water. That brings me to my final point.

Digital Is A Catalyst For Change

I am often surprised at how resistant managers are to adapt their companies’ structure to accommodate the new reality of digital. They persist in trying to squeeze it into their existing mental model by making it an IT problem or a communications tool.

Of course, as Web professionals, we know that digital does not fit comfortably in existing departmental silos. It requires a huge amount of cross-departmental collaboration.

How, then, do we bring managers to realize that digital is a company-wide issue? How do we get them to grasp the ramifications of this cultural phenomena?

Some would argue that we need to disabuse managers of their preconceptions, that the way to convince them that digital is a company-wide issue is to do away with separate digital strategies and digital teams. They argue that managers must understand that, one day, digital will be as ubiquitous as electricity is now to modern business life.

However, company-wide change is a tough sell to senior management. We need to be more pragmatic. We need to meet them halfway. To their minds, digital is an isolated problem, and so we need to start there and slowly widen their view.

By focusing initially on digital, we have a starting point to address their broader concerns. By appointing somebody as a digital lead and forming a digital team, we can highlight broader problems and work collaboratively with other units of the business.


A strong digital team can instigate a program of education across the whole organization. It can also work collaboratively with other departments to increase the impact of digital.

A strong digital lead with real authority can ensure that digital is included in all management discussions. They can disrupt out-of-date practices and encourage managers to consider digital options before falling back on traditional approaches.

Finally, a digital strategy can be used to instigate broader discussions about a company’s overall business goals and road map.

The key is to recognize that digital-focused thinking will not be required forever. One day, companies will not need Chief Digital Officers, the way we no longer have Chief Electricity Officers. We also need to recognize that the most important role of a digital team is not to own and implement a digital vision, but to facilitate company-wide change and to educate colleagues about the potential of digital in their areas of responsibility.

(al, il)

The illustrations in this article were thoroughly crafted by Veerle Pieters3.

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Paul Boag has been working with the web since 1994. He is now co-founder of the web design agency Headscape, where he works closely with clients to establish their web strategy. Paul is a prolific writer having written the Website Owners Manual, Building Websites for Return on Investment, Client Centric Web Design, Digital Adaptation and numerous articles for publications such as .net magazine, Smashing Magazine and the Web Designers Depot. Paul also speaks extensively on various aspects of web design both at conferences across the world and on his award winning Web design podcast boagworld.

  1. 1

    Nya-chan Production

    March 14, 2014 3:42 pm

    “For a long time, the industrial revolution was driven by the power of steam and water. That required building factories near rivers. The mass availability of electricity did away with that need, and yet over a decade later companies were still building their factories next to water. The full potential of electricity had just not sunk in.”

    That’s not the right cause, though – most factories still need water for their processes, be it cleaning, cooling, getting rid of safe waste. It really isn’t because out of tradition only…

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  2. 3

    “You wouldn’t have a brochure strategy”

    Errr… really?

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    • 4

      Absolutely. You would have a marketing strategy but not a strategy about just brochures.

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      • 5

        Do you not think that businesses in some sectors can gain an advantage from taking a more strategic approach to brochures?

        I’m specifically thinking travel, which still sends out forest-worths of brochures, and higher education (which you have experience in), whose brochures (prospectuses, to use the industry jargon) can be instrumental in helping fill student vacancies worth £36,000 over the period of a 4-year degree course.

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        • 6

          Anthony Garritano

          March 17, 2014 3:16 pm

          Sure, but what you’re talking about is still a marketing plan. It just happens to involve print. Even if there is a company that specializes in brochures, they are still in the business of marketing to a target audience, they just found using printed materials is effective.

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          • 7

            Right. But that print-based marketing plan is considered, arranged and produced by…

            …print-based marketers and designers.

            Would you have a brochure designer create and build a website? Dude; that’s so ’90s…

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  3. 8

    I agree. Hindsight has historically shown how differently we use technology long-term, from how it was initially intended. To this end, I would say it is kinda inevitable that we are thinking about digital all wrong, but that is consequently part of thinking … first one must have a thought, to then be able to judge whether ot not it is a good thought or not.

    Recently, people had been discussing how many die-hard paper book fans will never adopt to replacing them with ipads etc … I always like to think that people said that when books were touted as a replacement for paper scrolls, and stone tablets before before that). In hindsight, nobody today is worried about the jobs lost in carving stone tablets or paper scrolls … these technologies had there moments and are almost extinct from the common workplace, but it doesn’t worry any of us does it!?

    I guess as you say, everything we are doing is just to facilitate somethign else that will replace everythign we are doing right now. Not just digital. If anything, that is what is important to be prepared for … to keep our skillset ready for the next 10 years … change is going to be needed. Damn, I haven’t touched ActionScript for 5-6 years … and it damn near consumed my every working hour for 5-6 years before that. But you just have to be ready to move on.

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    • 9

      I don’t think anything ever gets replaced, it just takes a back seat. Take for example vinyl. Sales of that are really healthy, but it still has taken a back seat to digital downloads.

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      • 10

        When I say replaced, I mean in the sense of how it was intended to be purposed. As per your article, digital as we know it will be replaced with a different sense of purpose. Like how multimedia moved from meaning cutting out and re-arranging paper, to describing sound, video, animation, interaction … people still use such materials, but the meaning of multimedia as we knew it was re-purposed … replaced … now video, animation, interaction is expected of common devices such as mobile phones. Multimedia has been consumed, repurposed and no loner mentioned. It has been replaced.

        When digital trascends to more physical space (nano tech and bio tech) it will then likely be more affectionately associaed with terms used with those wider-reaching definitions. Things already larger than digital will supercede and transform (replace) it, such as interactive clothing. Biologically-fused suites with cabless-less neural networking would likely replace clothing and telecommunications as we know it, but it won’t be called digital.

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  4. 11

    No no no, web is not a tool its a medium. Photoshop is a tool that helps you with publishing efforts to the web. If web is the tool, then whats the medium for the web?

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  5. 14

    First time reading a Paul Boag article I didn’t like. I feel like we’ve moved past using the term ‘digital’ back in 2007; and have started using less ambiguous terms to describe what we want to achieve through digital channels.

    So, I kind-of agree with your initial preface. I think this article (not sure about the book yet) focuses too much on ‘digital’ and not enough on moving past the idea of ‘digital’ to realize what digital technologies enable marketers, communicators, collaborators, ect. to do. In some cases, digital technologies (like automated banking machines) are primarily tools; but can be used for other purposes.

    It would be great if this post included specific information about the evolution of the ‘digital’ ecosystem. It feels like a conversation I had 7 years ago about digital being a catalyst for change, and requiring organizational change. A lot of organizations have changed, or at least know they need to change, and now need some advice and guidelines about how to change.

    I guess I got used to expecting valuable insights from all your posts. I mean, I read your work for free; so I really shouldn’t complain. However, if I’m going to buy your book, I’m hoping for something better ;)

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    • 15

      Sure we have moved past seeing digital in that way, but do you really think organisations have? We run ahead in our thinking and fail to take our clients, bosses and colleagues with us. My book isn’t for you. Its for those people. Its for organisations that still have a long way to go before the web and digital is ubiquitous.

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      • 16

        interesting read.

        so to your “do you think orgs have?”

        my problem with the post is i feel as if it lacks something. some evidence? what are some of these examples that you are talking/thinking about? the analogy is ok but i think you are speaking to a well educated group of people who understand digital and how it fits into an org.

        for me, these digital strategies are so ingrained in our conversations, its foreign NOT to think or see that way which is why i’m having a tough time getting to the meat of this post.

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      • 17

        Oh, darn. I was hoping the book was for me. – I agree that there are a large number of organizations that don’t understand ‘digital’, but getting them to care enough to read a new book on the subject may be a challenge. My bookshelf is full of books on the subject; so I think it’ll still be interesting to have a look at how your book is going to be different. Getting people who’ve kept their heads in the sand this long to start caring about digital integration is the holy grail to our industry though; I assumed we were going to have to wait until they all retired.

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        • 18

          My book ends with a chapter dedicated to helping people pursued management. I realise that management won’t buy or read the book without somebody introducing them to it.

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  6. 19

    It’s really hard to try and introduce the concept of digital marketing to some business owners. In the past, I’ve worked with some folks who were really stubborn about the concept of seo and social media. They were so committed to the old models and approaches that had helped build their business originally. Interestingly enough, they couldn’t understand why they had declines in their business.

    I definitely agree about the future ubiquity for the word digital. Give it a couple of more years and the word digital will be completely dropped. I stopped introducing myself as a “digital” marketer and just simply say marketer.

    Think about it! After the tipping point of the color television, no one referred to it as a “color television” anymore.

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    • 20

      I agree. Unfortunately I think it will be more than a couple of years. However, it can’t happen quickly enough for me. :)

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  7. 21

    The electricity officer reference has been used many times. In recent articles.
    Digital is too broad a term and really is more akin to ‘power’.

    We are advocates but more importantly educators, eventually the ‘value’ and understanding of Digital will be commonplace and this broad term will be dropped.

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  8. 22

    Curious you don’t mention the work of McLuhan here, since he analyzed these effects systematically with his tetrad. “Digital” is just the family name for a many changes. The problem is it’s very hard to predict (versus analyzing with hindsight) what the effects are going to be, but you know they will be both positive and negative (from the human point of view).

    Here is a good example of how they play out in a specific context:

    http://www.bcbsdharma.org/insight-journal/

    Yes, this site does have an agenda; I work there. But I mention it only because it’s a good example of how to analyze the effects of tools on history.

    =Chris=

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  9. 23

    digital is an adjective, not a noun.

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  10. 26

    I agree with the essence of this article Paul, Digital is much more than a tool. Infact, I think it’s too profound to even call it a medium. I like to think of it as another dimension.

    Digital is not a tool. Digital is a whole different place in which these so called tools need to be applied, reimagined & simply, well… invented. Treat digital with the same attention as the physical world.

    I think we’re on the cusp of really taking it to the next level – part of this, will be ditching the “it’s just a tool” mantra. We think of digital as something that has now matured and to a certain degree I suppose this is a fair point. But I tend to think that it’s just our current understanding of digital that has matured, there is so much more untapped potential.

    Those who think digital is just a tool, I feel, are those who just don’t get it. Sure, it can be used as a tool – but that’s a narrow minded and naive approach.

    People who get it, embrace, not just use.

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  11. 27

    Claire Sharp Sundt

    March 16, 2014 10:34 pm

    I agree with your conclusion that we need strong digital teams and that many organisations need help in how organise themselves for the digital world.
    I have been giving presentations with exactly the same conclusion based on the way our company is organised and a lot of people have come up to me afterwards and said their main problem is not technical but organisational. However, I don’t necessarily find business lacks vision, but they need help to find out which technology will help their vision at any given time and the consequences of the different paths they think they want to choose, which is what you are basically saying I guess. I also think this has got more difficult to steer in the last 10 years because of the vast number of choices available.

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  12. 28

    I still think that you’re thinking the wrong way on this. Of course digital has profound implications on both internal and external business environments – but established business and strategic functions are still best placed to deal with it.

    Strategy requires that a constant watch is kept on the external environment so that the business can realign its efforts and, if necessary, strategy goals. Failure to adapt to digital isn’t a failure of digital – it’s a failure of strategy.

    A market-orientated organisation will spot the external changes and adapt its internal and marketing operations to cope with it – not because it’s digital, but because the market conditions demand it.

    Strategians must adapt to digital as they adapt to everything else the market throws at them. It’s easier for a director to ‘get digital’ than a digital specialist to ‘get strategy’, which demands a far deeper and broader understanding of internal business operations and the external environment.

    A single digital strategy is folly, precisely because it transcends so many business functions. It is more likely to constrain the company rather than give it the adaptability it needs. Each function may require a digital strategy, and (dare I say it) IT may need to step in to ensure systems interoperability, but an over-arching digital strategy is destined to fail.

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    • 29

      I am sorry David. But I think you are being naive if you think the majority of companies are in the place to integrate digital into their company in the way you propose. I work with many companies and have interviewed many more. We just are not at the place you are proposing. If you are in your business then more power to you. You are right that should be the ultimate objective, but it takes time and a lot of companies are not there by a long shot.

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      • 30

        Naive? Perhaps, although strategic planning can only ever be a ‘best guess’ at how people will react, and they are as volatile as ever :-) And please don’t feel the need to apologise for disagreeing.

        How are changes in the ‘digital’ landscape any greater than socio-economic and political changes, or different in such a way that require a fundamentally different approach?

        What barriers face your interviewed companies which prevent them from adopting digital solutions without a separate organisationally-horizontal digital function?

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  13. 31

    Strategy, planning for the long term
    Tactics, actions to obtain a short term aim or goal.

    Strategy of a multinational is probably set in decades, whereas for small business the two terms are virtually indistinguishable as small businesses often stumble from one bank overdraft period to the next.

    “Digital” to me seems a broad easy to comprehend term by all parties but possibly so broad it means completely different things to different people. The difficulty as I see it is not in terms but defining common frames of reference in respect of the words used.

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    • 32

      Lol.. I wish large multinationals planned that far ahead, but in my experience they don’t, especially when it comes to digital. It is just pointless to try.

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  14. 33

    Digital Is Just Tactics

    March 18, 2014 11:59 pm

    “digital is just a tool” and only a tool would think otherwise.

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    • 34

      To be fair, Paul is right in saying that digital technology has reshaped many aspects of our lives, and that businesses must react (or ideally be proactive) to the changed landscape or face possible obsolescence. I can see why it’s tempting to think that we should turn organisations inside out and rebuild form a digital-first perspective.

      This new landscape is just what it is, however The strategic thought processes in dealing with it are the same – scan the environment, identify where the company should be, plot the route to getting there (with goals) and allocate resources to get there. Keep scanning the landscape to make sure that you are on route, and occasionally check that the destination is still desirable.

      And from that perspective digital technologies are simply tools in that process. They enhance and super-charge the existing processes and occasionally (but more rarely than one might think) bring something new.

      (I’m not sure that ad hominem attacks like “only a tool…” actually add anything more to the discussion than the author’s contemptuous replies of “lol… it’s just pointless to try” and dismissal of perfectly logical views as naivety)

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  15. 35

    Absolutely agree that there needs to be digital leadership. A Director of Digital role is necessary to keep any company ahead of the curve, especially since this is the wild west of marketing. Web and especially mobile are the main conduits that help channel content marketing to a more personal degree for consumers.

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