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Digital DIY: Penny Wise and Pound Foolish?

For a host of reasons, many organizations have been taking a Digital DIY (Do It Yourself) approach to pursuing technology initiatives, both externally and internally. Though the motivations for these approaches are understandable and seem logical on the surface, more often than not they are suboptimal strategies that aren’t in an organization’s best interests. A corollary approach, DIC (Do It Cheap), is also less effective than many people presume. Leaders who are serious about addressing the opportunities and challenges created by social and digital technologies are best served by taking a DIS (Do It Smart) approach.

Digital DIY (Do It Yourself) approaches to pursuing technology initiatives, both externally and internally, have become pervasive over the past several years, particularly in the wake of the increasing popularity and growth of social media platforms and related technologies. The motivations for these approaches include:

  • General budget consciousness, and ongoing efforts to do more with less
  • Lack of certainty about the long-term viability of certain technologies and platforms, and related concerns about the ROI of committing to them
  • A desire to develop digital expertise in house, particularly to pursue the revenue-generating opportunities they are presumed to create

I see other reasons for Digital DIY approaches as well, including:

  • A lack of understanding of the complexity and risks associated with leveraging new technologies, particularly in a professional or commercial context
  • A presumption that an organization’s digital presence and engagement are less important than physical properties and more traditional forms of communication and interaction
  • The tendency to emphasize tactics over strategy
  • Focusing on cash rather than taking a broader view of resource allocation and consumption (including people and time)

Though the motivations and reasons for Digital DIY approaches are understandable and may seem logical on the surface, more often than not they are suboptimal strategies that aren’t in an organization’s best interests.

Digital DIY Patterns and Problems

Here are some of the Digital DIY approaches I’ve seen organizations take, along with the challenges and problems they can create.

Delegating responsibility to an intern or other “digital native.” This is the classic situation many of us are familiar with, and it’s usually based on two key assumptions: (1) digital engagement comes naturally to younger people; and (2) their (presumed) facility with technology as consumers and in their personal lives can easily translate to their professional lives. Problems with this approach include:

  • Digital natives are not a homogeneous group. Although some may be highly digitally literate, not all of them are. In fact they are generally less digitally sophisticated than people think they are.
  • Technology consumption and personal use do not necessarily translate into effective professional engagement.
  • Even with strong technical chops, young people lack relevant work-world knowledge, skills, and experience, as well as the judgment and wisdom that experience can create. They also lack knowledge of the organization, its history, key stakeholders, etc. In many respects knowing how to share content and chat on social channels is the least important aspect of what they need to know to be able to represent a brand or organization well in cyberspace.
  • Social and digital engagement are public activities, with the potential for broad reach. When things go wrong, they can go wrong in a big way. Is it smart, or even fair, to put that much responsibility in the hands of a junior staffer?

Having “everyone” engage via social and digital channels as part of their job. The idea behind this approach is generally well intentioned: employees are viewed as brand ambassadors and are in a great position to represent an organization by speaking in their own voices rather than having the organization rely mostly or exclusively on a corporate voice. They can also extend the reach of the organization by communicating via their own personal and professional networks. Problems with this approach include:

  • Many employees don’t have the knowledge and skills to be digital brand ambassadors, and may not have suitable networks either.
  • If it’s not officially part of their job and they don’t get rewarded for it, most employees aren’t inclined to take on the additional work.
  • Individuals who are actively engaged on digital channels in their personal lives don’t necessarily have the ability to translate that knowledge and experience to their professional lives.
  • People who value work/life boundaries, as well as those who see their individual professional and organizational identities as two separate things, may resent having to blur those lines.

Relying on a “digital enthusiast” who’s willing to take on extra work. This approach is also well intentioned. Many organizations have someone on staff with a sufficient degree of digital literacy who’s capable of spearheading digital initiatives. These people are passionate, eager to learn and prove themselves, and see the experience as something that can benefit their careers in both the short and longer terms. These factors lead them to volunteer to extend themselves beyond their normal responsibilities. Problems with this approach include:

  • Often these enthusiasts are already fully committed to their regular jobs, which means that digital initiatives can lead to excessive workloads and potential burnout.
  • Going “above and beyond” on projects that aren’t part of an employee’s regular job duties could create equity issues if there’s no compensation for the additional time spent and value added. This is especially risky if the employees in question are non-exempt staff.
  • The lack of integration of digital initiatives into an employee’s job could also lead to issues with their direct managers, who may see the initiatives as a distraction rather than a contribution. These employees may find themselves being punished for their volunteer efforts during their annual performance reviews rather than rewarded.
  • Without formal responsibility and a certain amount of status (either directly or through an organizational sponsor), digital enthusiasts may not have sufficient power to ensure the initiatives they spearhead are successful.
  • Depending on a “digital superstar” creates vulnerability for the organization. What happens when that person leaves and there’s no one with comparable skills to take on the work they started?

Having “techies” lead digital initiatives. Of course this approach seems logical on the surface, but it neglects a fundamental truth: technology adoption and adaptation are fundamentally human endeavors. What that means is that ultimately the success of digital initiatives has less to do with their technological components than it does the human factors (i.e., individual capability, governance, change management). Many hard-core and traditional IT types often don’t understand the perspective of lay users, most of whom are digitally unsophisticated. As a result, these digital sophisticates may come up with elegant technical solutions that make sense for people with the right skill sets, but make absolutely no sense for the typical professional, which makes them virtually impossible to implement and/or maintain. They often have trouble communicating their ideas as well, talking over other people’s heads and confusing them, which tends to retard progress rather than advance it.

Assigning social and digital projects to someone with capacity but limited capability. This approach is generally taken in organizations where leaders have almost no digital sophistication themselves, which means they have no idea what it takes to achieve success in this area. The approach is similar to the previous one, except that in this case the person to whom the work is assigned does not have sufficient digital literacy to effectively lead or contribute to these projects. Rather, the criteria for assigning people to the work seems to be whether an individual has excess capacity to take on additional responsibilities or has proven themselves in another (often unrelated) area. The problems with this approach should be pretty obvious. If a leader wouldn’t assign someone to an accounting or finance project simply because they had extra time to fill in their work day, or because they proved themselves in marketing or sales, why would they assume it’s okay to assign people to digital initiatives without some confidence they are capable of being successful? Sure, they can learn on the job, but that’s incredibly wasteful, not to mention risky.

Assuming general professional knowledge, traditional experiences and “collective wisdom” can compensate for digital illiteracy. I’ve seen this approach most often with HR and internal legal counsel. The professionals in these areas assume they can rely on their general knowledge and experience to deal with opportunities, challenges and issues stemming from social and digital technologies. But without an understanding of how various platforms and tools work, as well as related norms and rules of engagement, and the ever-changing regulatory environments and case law, they’re woefully unprepared to understand new situations and take effective action. They’re also vulnerable to being influenced by presumed experts who may have a vested interest in the outcome of their decisions and could therefore offer poor guidance or steer them in the wrong direction. And trying to collaborate with one another does not create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Five digitally illiterate people cannot come up with a sophisticated solution any better than a single digitally illiterate person can. Once again the consequences are wasted time and resources and increased risk.

The Digital DIY Corollary: DIC (Do It Cheap)

There’s a corollary to Digital DIY that’s worth mentioning: Do it Cheap, or DIC. This cost-first approach, which is used when organizations decide to outsource digital work, treats digital expertise and services as commodities, which Wikipedia defines as:

… a class of goods for which there is demand, but which is supplied without qualitative differentiation across a market. A commodity has full or partial fungibility; that is, the market treats its instances as equivalent or nearly so with no regard to who produced them.

As indicated by the definition, organizations using this approach assume that one digital service provider is as good as another, and that the most important differentiator among them is cost. Consequently, they go to digital marketplaces like eLance, oDesk, Fiverr, 99 Designs and others, and/or acquire services from low-bid individuals and companies (many of whom operate overseas). For simple projects, this approach can be very effective, but for more sophisticated and complex initiatives it could cost the buyer more in total resources in both the short and longer terms. Problems include:

  • The buyer and/or a representative from the buying organization will have to spend more time creating specs, answering questions, guiding process, and managing the project
  • The organization may end up with a partial solution due to limited scope and literal interpretations of project requirements
  • The organization could end up spending additional cash to fix the problems unresolved by the low-cost provider, and/or end up stuck with a less-than-optimal result

The Digital DIY Alternative: DIS (Do It Smart)

I’m not saying Digital DIY is categorically bad. In fact, I think it can be very effective when organizations have sufficient capacity and capability in-house to pursue Digital Era opportunities and respond to the challenges and issues social and digital technologies create. When that capacity and capability is lacking, however, as it is in most organizations today, hard work alone is not enough. People must work smart. Rather than jumping on bandwagons and approaching digital initiatives tactically and reactively, leaders should think about digital transformation as a long-term strategy, taking a crawl-walk-run approach that allows them to prepare themselves, their organizations, and their workforces to ultimately become digitally self-suffiicient. In the short term, that means recognizing that digital expertise is highly differentiated, not a commodity, and should be valued and pursued as such. Organizations employing a Digital DIS (Do It Smart) approach:

  • Recognize that “quality is economy.” Paying more in the short term for a high-caliber solution will pay for itself over the longer term, particularly when total resources (not just cash) are considered.
  • Respect digital expertise as a set of professional skills comparable to other professions like accounting, finance, IT and HR.
  • Hire and assign internal resources to digital initiatives based on their expertise, and ensure they have the necessary capacity and support to be successful.
  • Seek outside counsel and leverage external expertise and resources to compensate for internal deficiencies.
  • Invest in digital literacy training for internal staff to prepare them to lead digital initiatives and engage with social and digital technologies more efficiently and effectively.

I’ll have to more to say about Digital DIS approaches in future posts. In the meantime, as always, I welcome comments and questions.

Original post on the Denovati SMART Blog.

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