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Let’s get this straight: digital-first does not mean digital-only

As organisations everywhere undertake digital transformation programmes, an increasingly common misconception is emerging around ‘digital-first’ — that everything needs to become digital.

Mark Wilson

Managing Partner & CEO

In an earlier article, I sketched out what a digital-first airport might be like: how, by starting to solve the problem of creating the best airport experience from a digital-first perspective, the ‘airport’ could become a very different place from those we experience today. More importantly, by thinking digital-first, a host of unexpected opportunities emerge that would otherwise have remained hidden, enabling more radical opportunities for change.

There is no doubt that digital-first is an essential modern business mindset, and that every new service should be conceived in as digital a form as possible. However, a frequent misconception is that becoming a digital-first organisation means ‘making everything digital’. That’s entirely the wrong interpretation of digital-first.

You can't stay dry digitally

Modern organisations must embrace truly digital-first behaviours, but that does not suggest that they become digital-only operations. In my airport example it was pretty clear what parts of the process needed to remain physical, not least the actual flying part. By approaching that challenge digital-first the nature of the experience was flipped from today’s building-centric approach to one in which the buildings play a much more focused role as part of a traveller-centric flying experience. There were still buildings and staff. And planes.

I come across this misunderstanding of digital-first thinking frequently, often in people who are part of digital transformation programmes. In those driving the process (yes, really) this misconception can push them towards over-ambitious goals and over-aggressive decisions; for the broader base of staff participating in the process it can instil a fear of change and a reluctance to contribute critical insights or adopt new approaches.

Digital-first implies making these services as useful and compelling as possible to digital-age consumers. It means designing them to be as digital as possible by default. It does not mean eradicating non-digital components by default.

It’s easy to see how that might feel like a threat.

The greatest threat to any organisation’s future, or that of the people who work in it, lies in trying to sustain the status quo… but that doesn’t mean that all the non-digital stuff has to disappear. Digital-first isn’t a threat; it’s an enabler of progress. And progress eats threats.

The growing importance of serving digital-by-default customers

Many non-digital services are essential to modern life. Many will remain so if they are reimagined in a digital-first way to offer a better alternative to their predecessors. Many new services will emerge with extensive non-digital components and those conceived digital-first will have the greatest chance of success.

Digital-first organisations focus on enabling the best possible digital experience for any service they provide because for every minute that passes, a few more people prefer to access an increasingly broad range of services digitally. They're the growing generation of people who do everything digitally by default, only going analogue when they can't. As long as the capabilities of the devices we use and the networks they run on keep improving, that trend will continue.

It would be absurd not to recognise how important this is for any organisation or service that it offers — but it would be equally ridiculous to assume that every organisation or service should eschew all offline components in the pursuit of future success.

Make no mistake, digital-first is essential but never mistake that for an often misguided drive to become digital-only.

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