Is it strange to ask if the age of digitalization is over when everyone seems to agree that we are only at the start of one of the biggest changes in human history?
But when was the last time you thought that IT was making your working life better? Last month? Last year? And when was the last time you were actually complaining about IT? Yesterday? Today? One hour ago? Some years ago you could start any conversation with some remarks about the weather. In 2019 you can break the ice at any party by complaining about the IT system at your company. Everyone knows what you are talking about.
Why are IT systems at work so terrible?
The sad truth is: if you want to reduce your sales by 20%, if you want to make your competitors stronger, alienate your customers and make your employees unhappy, the safest thing is to implement a new IT system. If you think your employees have too little to do: change the IT system. This will keep your entire staff fully occupied for the next two or three years. It does not even matter which IT system you choose. Don´t waste money on choosing the right system! You will need the money later to repair it and train your people.
The other thing you have to spend your money on is connecting it to other systems. Just take a simple example from my field, HR. Try to organize a seminar at your company. Is there a single system that helps you to find a date, invite people, book a room within your company or, even worse, outside your company, get catering, book and pay the facilitator, collect feedback while keeping an overview over your budget? Try to get a system that does this for both internal as well as external seminars and which also offers e-learning and an authoring tool. A system that is both safe but also connects to every useful site on the world wide web.
You are now talking about probably four, five systems, all of them very different, which need to be connected. Or 90% of your work is done outside the system. If there is such a system that does it all, please come forward and tell me: where you have been all these years?
Is there nothing we can do about it?
To be clear: I am not advocating the return of paper and pencil. There can be no doubt that computing has made private and working life in many ways easier and more comfortable. The question is, have we reached the point where digitalization is going to change our life even more or have we reached the final stage? Or have we reached a cross road where we have to decide which direction we are going to: towards a dead end or towards the future?
The good news is: something similar has happened before and it has been solved. In fact, there are some significant parallels to the age of electricity. Electricity, like computing, has been greeted with much enthusiasm and fear. Reading about the early days of electricity when people thought it would solve any problem in the world, bears a strange resemblance to our attitude towards computing. However, these days we only notice electricity when it is not working. It has become a commodity. And this is what is presumably going to happen to computing, too.
But how did electricity manage to influence every aspect of life? Through standardisation. Whether you buy a toaster, a television or a dishwasher, you know it will work because at least within the same country, we share the same plugs. If we had to program every toaster before its first use, most people would probably never buy one. Some years ago IT had the goal to become easier. It has been called plug and play. We have lost sight of this goal. But this is what we need, a system where different platforms connect so easily that your grandparents could do it.
Is the age of digitalization starting or is it over?
Some might argue that we have standards for computing and the current state is the furthest we can get. If this is indeed the case the age of digitalization is well and truly over. Going further will only waste money and time. But if further standardization is possible, when we can connect every system and every platform to another like a child can start a toaster, then we are indeed only at the start of digitalization.