Move digital from center stage to backstage

What the evolution of the digital age means for business

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This story was created by Fast Company for Grant Thornton as a part of a content series that explores the impact of innovation and technology.
A few years ago, Michael Lebowitz’s Brooklyn-based marketing agency, Big Spaceship, took a small but radical step — it dropped the word “digital” from its name. The agency still relied on all of the same digital tools and platforms as its competitors that proudly trumpeted their digital bona fides. But Big Spaceship determined it wasn’t useful to use the term as a way of differentiating itself.

“We dropped it because if you’re not digital, then who the hell are you in the marketing world?” said Lebowitz, Big Spaceship’s founder and CEO. “You don’t say that you’re a hammer- and saw-driven construction company, right?”

It used to be that “digital” was shorthand for the future. It meant cutting edge, speed, high tech. Today, however, digital applies to just about everything — the music we listen to, the shows we watch, the purchases we make, the social media we share, the apps we can’t live without, the programs we rely on for work. And on and on.

So, in an age when everything is digital, what does it even mean anymore to be “digital”? For some, it means quantum computing and artificial intelligence-driven innovations; for others, it simply means embracing the tools that make our working lives so much more efficient and connected. “In many ways, digital is just business as usual,” said Chris Smith, managing principal and leader of the Strategy and Transformation practice at Grant Thornton. “We’re at a place where everything digital is integrated so seamlessly into our lives. So, the obvious question is, What’s next?”

The future of digitalIn the late ’90s, static webpages wowed us. Ten years later, smartphone apps and dynamic content pushed our digital world forward. In 2019, we’re embracing emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and the internet of things (IoT). So where will the digital era be five or 10 or even 20 years from now?

Roy Nicholson, principal in Grant Thornton’s Advisory Services and leader of the Digital Transformation and Management group, is focused on the digital horizon. For his part, Nicholson believes the next wave will involve taking advantage of all the data that digital innovations have made accessible. For instance, combining healthcare data from a variety of sources, including electronic medical records and clinical trial results, may help identify better treatment strategies for patients. “All sorts of disruptions are coming because we’re able to intelligently get insights from data that we’re finally getting in one place,” he said.

And while the maturation of the digital age will bring plenty of advancements, it also will bring some refinements. Garry Golden, a futurist and corporate consultant, pointed out that we’re only now starting to grapple with some of the thorniest issues of the digital infiltration of our lives, such as privacy, data control and the addictive nature of certain digital experiences. He believes the next wave of conversations around digital issues will include questions about regulations and the need for more humanistic — and less addictive — design. “Maybe we’re starting to move from the teenager phase of a digital society into the adult phase,” Golden said.

Digital grows upAs the digital era continues to mature and evolve, the questions that keep C-suite executives up at night are these — Are we keeping pace, let alone ahead of the game? Or will we get left in the digital dust? After all, companies and industries have taken different routes in the digital era. The tech industry has obviously been ground zero for digital innovation. Other industries, such as healthcare and energy — as well as government — have been much slower to embrace the digital era.

But these days, even the laggards are moving quickly to tap into the promise of data. Cities are taking advantage of IoT-enabled tools to redirect traffic flows and optimize city services. Energy companies are applying state-of-the-art computing methods to reimagine the oil-exploration process. Healthcare companies are leveraging digitized medical records to boost efficiency and deliver better care to patients. “The pace at which they’re catching up and the rate at which they’re investing in modernizing are quite phenomenal,” Smith said.

But even if the pace of adoption is slow, the key for companies is to be aware of which way the digital winds are blowing. Lebowitz of Big Spaceship said that while digital is no longer a necessary qualifier for marketing firms, companies face risks if they fail to stay abreast of shifting trends. Consider the marketing firms that are spending their clients’ huge ad budgets sifting through social-media data to better understand millennials. “A lot of value has been ascribed to this data,” Lebowitz said. “But what if people stop sharing every piece of their lives through social media? If you look at Gen Z, their online behaviors are utterly different.”

A focus on substance In the corporate world, it can be easy to get caught up in the digital hype. At its core, Nicholson said, digital transformation is an effort to achieve three goals:

  • To operate your business more efficiently
  • To improve your customer and employee experience
  • To use technology to create new services and business models or enhance existing ones

Yes, digital tools are a key part of how today’s companies operate. But the newest AI-driven chatbot or IoT-enabled sensor isn’t what will rocket your company past its competitors. In fact, an outsized emphasis on the digital part of that equation can distract companies from what they should be focused on — simply achieving those three goals. “These are just sound business principles that have nothing to do with digital,” Nicholson said.

Or, as Chris Smith put it, companies need to focus on the fundamentals. They need to be agile and innovative to respond to competitive threats or seize new opportunities, and they need to remain customer-focused and able to analyze their operations. Whether these practices are described as “digital” — or some new buzzword that has yet to be coined — is beside the point. “These are the kinds of characteristics that define a modern enterprise, void of the word ‘digital,’” Smith said. “And those are characteristics that can stand the test of time.”

This FastCo Works article was created for and commissioned by Grant Thornton.


Chris SmithChris Smith
Managing Principal; Leader
Strategy and Transformation
T +1 425 214 9820

Roy NicholsonRoy Nicholson
Principal, Advisory Services; Leader
Digital Transformation and Management
T +1 408 346 4397