Digital as Organisational Principle | Hannington Tame
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The Organisational Principle Of Our Age

I love it when someone clever and insightful manages to capture the wild and discordant thoughts whirl-winding around one’s brain and tame them in one clear and inclusive statement. As Leonardo da Vinci said, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”. Recently I had just such a moment at the end of Martha Lane Fox’s Dimbleby Lecture.

Our job here at Hannington Tame is to know Digital Leaders. But what does “Digital” mean in absolute terms when it means so many things to so many different people; when it often seems like a white sheet upon which can be projected whatever you like. Is it a website as a shop window, Big Data, personalised product, streamlined services, Direct-to-Consumer, infographics, 3D-printing, augmented reality, programmatic marketing, the single customer view, machine learning, disruption, failing fast? Is it about good things like fast and free information, 24-hour delivery and the best value price or is it about bad things like invasion of privacy, porn, gambling and jihadist blogs? Is it about the huge opportunities for digital marketing or is it the threat of the most junior member of staff who has the only password to the company’s twitter account. Well, as Martha Lane-Fox said, it is quite simply “The Organisational Principle of our Age”.

The last organisational principle was industrial. Everything revolved around a large central machine or process supported by self-generating layers of bureaucracy that broadcast its message or product to the population at large. It required huge capital investment, long-range planning and thrived on the philosophy that you could have any colour you wanted as long as it was black.

The organisational principle of our day – Digital – turns much of this on its head. It starts from the individual’s viewpoint, its problems are solved with light investment to achieve Minimum Viable Product and it uses real feedback not bureaucratic assumptions to inform decisions about strategy and tactics. It is about making sure that you have clean data and making sure that you are, where appropriate, using agile methodology.

The great news is that, like the industrial revolution, we have a huge lead here in the UK. Like the industrial revolution and maybe more by luck than design, we have a perfect set of conditions giving us a competitive advantage; a densely and diversely populated country; allowing relatively easy logistics; a high trust in payment systems; the predominance of the English tongue around the world and a cosmopolitan capital city that brings together some of the world’s best talent in creativity, government, law, finance and commerce in general.

Government is of course the biggest bureaucracy in the land. It has made huge progress and at the same time is encountering huge problems in its journey to organise itself in this new paradigm. It has come up with its own insightful phrase – digital by default. I think this is a good place to start although in many cases an incredibly difficult step to take for companies shacked by legacy IT problems, with poor data-management and entrenched top-down bureaucracies running uncommunicative rigid silos.

One of Martha Lane-Fox’s most important themes was education. Education is required at all levels; in fact it is probably required more at board level than it is at any other. One of the most difficult elements of our job is to work out where our client sit on the steep learning curve of Digital. In the last few months we at Hannington Tame have worked with a local council, a £1.5Bn turnover luxury fashion company and a fast-growing pureplay start up – their problems are all much the same. But apart from the brand new ecommerce company much of the work really involves educating the management of an organisation as to what digital means – how to overcome legacy IT and legacy HR attitudes and systems.

The path is not a straightforward one. Change involves steps back as well as forwards. Politicians (and for this read company politicians as well as government politicians) are scared of change because people are always nervous when their jobs change. And this change is extremely rapid – arguably digital infrastructure (broadband, computing power and the omnipresence of such connectivity in people pockets) has only really been around at critical mass for less than a decade. People worry about their jobs – but isn’t it better to embrace change and adapt rather than be mown down by better adapters some inevitable time in the medium-term future?

The industrial revolution did not change everything but it did pretty much change the way that everything was organised. The digital age is having the same effect. As Tom Loosemore of the GDS says, Digital changes the shape, language and processes upon which much of our working and non-working life now depends.

If we all recognise that Digital is not going to change everything in the world but it is going to change how almost everything is organised then it is easier to relate to all of its symptoms, challenges and opportunities: Digital is the organisational principle of our age.

More E-Commerce and Business News from Hannington Tame

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UK & International Ecommerce News – 17 May 2021

James Minter

James Minter is a partner at Hannington Tame, the digital CEO and C-Suite headhunting specialist.


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