Nearly one fifth of the 21st century is behind us already – gosh time flies. Generation Z, those who were born in the 2000s, are now entering the workforce as adults. I wonder what the term “IT” means to them?

If they learn by listening to office conversation, they would be forgiven for thinking it’s something companies used to do but is now becoming redundant – like slide rules or typing pools. Today, everything is “digital”.

We hear about digital efficiency, digital workplace, and digital optimisation. ERP is now part of a digital platform. Digital has become everything to everyone everywhere – or so it would sometimes seem.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with that but if we allow it, we must also accept that digital no longer has any differential meaning.

I think the term ‘digital’ (in business and general management use) can trace its roots back to the very late 1990s and the dawn of what was then called “new media”. When the web and email arrived they offered new communications channels to customers that conventional marketing agencies didn’t initially appreciate or support. But marketing is a dynamic industry and very quickly a new kind of agency arrived – to specialise in the exotic online channel technologies. After a few years, by the early 2000’s – these channels were no longer ‘new’ media.

The marketers quickly refined their naming convention. The new kind of marketing was “digital marketing”. Then, as the new vanguard bestrode boardrooms, 21st century Don Draper style – they simplified it to just ‘digital’. As a result, business general managers and CEOs started to think of ‘digital’ as the market facing use of technology to win customers – through web ads and email campaigns and latterly ecommerce and mobile apps. Digital equaled customer facing.

So far, so good. By about 2010 or so – digital meant market facing technology, and “IT” meant back office and the internal efficiency use of technology. But from there on a problem started to arise. Digital was more exciting. Winning customers is perhaps more compelling than re-engineering SG&A costs – to the majority of entrepreneurial minds.

The keyword “digital” got the attention, the power and the budget. For a while – maybe up to about 2015, I think most CIOs accepted the situation, shrugged their shoulders and carried on. But as time went on the under-invested legacy systems creaked more and more. The systems of record couldn’t cope with the changes the market facing interactive channels were bringing. There was only one thing to be done – reclaim the ‘D’ word and start applying it to all the back office work too.

A few older CIOs had a bit of a cultural appropriation score to settle. How had marketers stolen a word from computing (literal meaning: binary encoding of a signal) and then used it as a political tool to undermine IT? The nerve! So then we got into a phase of corporate digital-washing. Digital got applied everywhere and to everything because it sounds good. Like ‘natural’, ‘green’ or ‘vintage’ – adding ‘digital’ made almost any technology related project or investment sound more valuable and progressive.

But if ‘digital’ can now be applied to anything and everything, then it has no effective use for helping CEOs to discriminate between different categories of investment. Perhaps the only thing they can be confident of, is that nobody at their executive table seems keen to talk about IT anymore. Under the hood – their companies are still running and utterly dependant on PCs, relational databases, IP networks, messaging middleware, process models, Unix derivatives and dozens more fundamental technologies that we were happy to call IT a decade ago. But it’s all digital now.

So – is it R.I.P. IT? Maybe future dictionaries will note it as an ancient term – first mentioned circa 1975, fell out of use circa 2020. I wonder what term will one day make ‘digital’ redundant? Autonomous perhaps? But I’m currently processing our new CEO survey data and I can tell you business leader’s unprompted use of the word ‘digital’, which has been steadily rising since 2012, went up again in 2019. It appears ‘digital’ still has rising currency.

*This article is republished from the Gartner Blog Network with permission. Gartner’s 2019 CEO survey reports will be published to clients in April.

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