The Digital Mindset and Sticking-Plasters


By Keith C Pye, Director

The term “digital mindset” is beginning to be widely used in a variety of different contexts – in government reports, by business leaders and industrialists, by global consultancies like Deloitte, and by educators. Some are using it merely as a buzz-phrase – a vague and unsubstantiated use of a technological term intended to underpin whatever argument is being made. Others see it as a marginal step-up from narrower digital applications, and yet others regard it as a synonym for “digital-first” solutions.

The question is whether those are all there is to the term. Does “digital mindset” have any genuine value for the development of UK business or education beyond simply stressing the importance of digital skills and applications?

Another oft-seen cliché is that “the future is digital”. Being a cliché does not make it wrong, but there is certainly a sense in which it is arguably obsolescent. It would be more accurate to say that “the future is cyber” for, although digital computing has been dominant for the past fifty years and will continue to play a role well into the next couple of decades, quantum computing is now in the prototype and test stages in science and communications (*). Quantum computing – which, of course, is not digital – is probably at the same stage of development in 2021 as digital computers were in the early 1950s or 1960s.

So, while we would be more correct to argue the need for a “cyber mindset” it is perhaps too early to move too far from the more familiar “digital”.

Most people would agree that digital is important. There is a growing understanding that it now underpins virtually everything we do. Our lives are heavily influenced by smart-phones, pads, laptops, and desktops, by the internet, by streamed media, by wifi-linked devices, and by gadgets based on AI systems (e.g. Alexa, Siri, and Google Assistant). Global businesses such as Amazon and Google would simply not be possible without all that equipment and the underpinning advanced software and AI applications.

Surely that means, with the majority of people around the world using all of those things, that we already have a digital mindset?

The answer unfortunately is no. A “digital mindset” is not the same thing as using digital technologies – neither is it an over-arching term for a package of digital competences.

Just because someone has Microsoft Word under control and can use Twitter and an accountancy package does not mean that they have a digital mindset. Equally just because a business has a web-site, a Facebook page, and uses email and Microsoft Teams does not define it as having a digital mindset.

The reason is that possessing a digital mindset is a state of mind, a world view, a fundamental philosophy. It is most definitely not merely a set of competences or a knowledge of digital applications. It is on an entirely different, holistic, intellectual plateau requiring people to think radically rather than simply looking for another digital application to replace a manual task.

The latter point is crucial. A common approach to service and production issues is to identify a problem area and find a digital solution based on it saving time, money, and being more efficient. At that point the manager or business owner pats themselves on the back and waits for the next problem to emerge. It is an understandable strategy but is just a “sticking plaster” solution which does nothing to address the wider issues surrounding the way the company or organisation operates.

When Jeff Bezos established Amazon, he could have done what many retail organisations do and set up an online shop. This was – and often still is – the preferred solution for many retail organisations. It’s the sticking plaster syndrome again. What Bezos really did (even though an online shop was the core) was to see that future retail was not simply about a digital way of doing the same thing – not merely about finding a way to shift goods and services using the internet. His genius lay in having a digital mindset, an overall philosophy which re-thought and re-engineered online retail and completely changed the way the world bought and sold goods and services. Where ordinary retailers set up an online shop and use a delivery company to get products to consumers, Bezos saw that it needed much more – a complete, top-down integration of digital technologies with advanced consumer insights. It needed, for example, an AI system to predict what shoppers would be interested in, a complete re-think about the speed and convenience of fulfilment (aided of course by yet more digital applications), a customer profiling system linked intelligently to vendor offerings, and much more – but all of it based on digital approaches underpinned by revolutionary thinking about human problems.

Bezos did not use a sticking plaster, he re-thought and re-engineered the entire process in a digital way from top to bottom.

Arguably, the last time human societies had this sort of challenger was at the beginning of industrialisation. Up to the late eighteenth century almost everything had been done locally and in domestic units (**). Products and services were designed, developed, and delivered locally and those that needed to have wider distribution, such as textiles or small items of hardware, tended to be handled on a distributed home-working basis. Any business which wished to improve the system usually looked to installing new machines in people’s homes, or making their workers work harder through financial incentives or penalties.

The revolutionary mindset in those days was the “factory-system”. Revolutionary because it turned the whole system on its head and re-engineered everything from the top down. Entrepreneurs who had the “factory-mindset” used an entirely different philosophy and came at the core commercial issues in a very different way. They started, in other words, from a totally different position – where a single building or set of buildings formed the location at which hundreds or thousands of people worked, one where machines could be standardised and be much larger than those which might fit into a domestic setting, and where production could be closely monitored. It also provided a single location for raw material and component deliveries, adequate storage for finished goods, and a single base from which the logistics and distribution could be organised and supervised.

Today, that all seems perfectly logical – even simple – and we have difficulty understanding why they did not do it sooner. But, at the time, it required as complete a change of mindset as that which gave Amazon and Google their global dominance today.

Having a digital mindset is not about ensuring that students and staff are digitally competent (although that is immensely important and remains the source of major skills gaps in the UK today) – it is about fostering an holistic appreciation of the power and scope of the digital/cyber world and the direction in which its varied technologies are developing. Modern businesses, for example, need to understand how satellite data can be harnessed, how AI systems can leverage their processes, how blockchain approaches can empower their supply and delivery chains, how quantum encryption can make communications more secure, how robots can be made more autonomous in order to add value, and the list goes on. But the vital element demanded by the digital mindset is that all this has to be accomplished as an integrated whole – by starting with a digital mindset and developing new and radical ways of doing things.

A digital mindset is not just having competences in the use of technology. It is not even about “digital first” – thinking of, and giving priority to, digital solutions and approaches. Those are just sticking plasters.

A true digital mindset is an all-encompassing and fundamental understanding of the cyber world, what its components are capable of, how they are developing, where the technology is about to take giant leaps forward, and how its various components interact. It also demands a capacity and willingness to throw out accepted practices and start again with wholly novel and innovative assumptions and approaches.

The purpose is nothing less than a revolution.

If there are three words that sum up the true digital mindset they are holistic, radical, and brave.

End.

(*) A joint Chinese-Austrian satellite launched in 2016 tested and proved the ability of quantum entanglement (what Einstein called “spooky action at a distance”) to almost instantaneously transmit coded signals back to Earth over a distance of about 1,200 miles. In 2017 the “Micius” satellite also succeeded in transmitting quantum-encrypted video from China to Austria using entanglement-based quantum-key distribution. Each secret key is a string of entangled photon pairs. The laws of quantum physics say that any attempt to spy on such a transmission will unavoidably leave an error-like footprint that can be easily detected by recipients at either station.
Other nations – for obvious reasons are pursing quantum encryption and communication. NASA is developing the National Space Quantum Laboratory (it will use lasers on the International Space Station to permit secure communications). The 1bn Euro Quantum Internet Alliance in Europe is in early development. A joint UK-Singapore team is making rapid progress toward launching its own quantum communications satellite and Japan and India are also pursuing such work.

Development of quantum computing is also proceeding at pace. It will not replace digital computers any time but in certain fields – especially in security and perhaps pharmaceuticals and even aerospace, the approach may offer significant advantages.

(**) The Royal Navy arguably invented the “factory system” much earlier when it established its building, repair, maintenance, and supply systems in Portsmouth but the model was not widely recognised at the time for the advantages it brought.

Posted on 16th April 2021.