Does Digitalisation Make Us Dumber?

With digitalisation affecting all walks of life from work, to banking, to healthcare, to travel, to media and so on, is it that the ‘Homo Sapiens’ has found its master and our thinking will be substituted by even smarter digital systems and networks? Or is it rather that the ‘Homo Faber’, as portrayed my Max Frisch, is developing even more sophisticated tools for himself to master life.

In a recent conversation with a couple of very smart people, I was asked a similar question. My answer was that in my humble view clearly the latter will be the case.

Whether we look at digitalisation from a personal perspective, talk about the Internet of Things, or take an industrial angle to discuss the Industrial Internet, we do see the world evolving.

Unfortunately, the answer on the question in the headline is ambiguous: It depends. Whether we grow or get lazy when new possibilities arise really depends on us.

Leveraging Digital Tools

If we look at the example of our personal work environments, in a digitalizing world we can either go to work in a physical place and call it working. We can also have our cell phones ringing when they should not, or spend our days in meetings booked by someone else, and then complain about the e-mail load, which is hard to manage because of sitting in the meetings all the time.

"Frustration grows. Yes, that’s called modern corporate life."

And in those gatherings we then most likely do e-mail, neither really participating in the meeting, nor actually focusing on the e-mails. To get some relief we can then complain about the company and our horrible boss in the social media, while forgetting we befriended the latter in a desperate networking attempt half a year ago. Frustration grows. Yes, that’s called modern corporate life.

Or alternatively, we can choose to set up a work environment where digital tools are leveraged efficiently to make the necessary things easier: skyping, chatting, texting, streaming, facetiming, dropboxing, salesforcing, googling and whatnot, ideally virtually and on the go, in order to reserve our time for meeting in person for truly engaged, creative interaction and the storm of minds. Results improve. But, that typically means going to work for a smaller and more agile company.

Industrial Internet Opens New Business Models

From an industrial perspective all of this becomes way easier. Internal and external connectedness of industrial level systems will open up new ways of working to improve efficiency, create partnership opportunities, lead to discovery of valuable dependencies, and allow for entirely new business models to emerge. Hunky dory, all that – there’s a but.

"...people currently holding executive management powers are no digital natives."

Organisations will be put to a twofold test: On the one hand, it’s again the employees who will have to grow and adjust to learn new ways of working, adopt evolving processes, and learn to leverage new types of information and tools to obtain and manage it. There will be some ‘Schumpeter’ going on when that happens, meaning creative destruction leading to demand for some competencies to disappear, in order to make way for new ones. But that’s actually the easy part.

On the other hand, and that’s the hard part, management will have to step up to understand and leverage the potential of the Industrial Internet. So far we are still at the dawn of an era and of a new industrial revolution – nothing achieved yet. The underlying challenge here is that the majority of people currently holding executive management powers are no digital natives. This makes the principles, potentials, and opportunities of the new era a difficult thing to embrace. Overcoming this managerial limitation is an equally painful process of discovery, insight and decision, which will have to be run through before any meaningful evolution is likely to happen.

In summary, we have gone through times with the world being split up into ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’, into ‘knows’ and ‘know-nots‘, and most likely we will see the future ability of enterprises to prosper depending on whether they are ‘digitals’ or ‘digi-nots’.

Dumb digital or smart digital, your choice, pal.