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John Sheridan

John is CEO of Digital Business insights!

Frog in the well – a circular view of the digital revolution…

The digital revolution is probably one of the only major revolutions most of us have ever seen.

We have never been more connected.

The industrial revolution is long gone, though its signature factories, railways and chimneys are still with us today. It had a profound effect on the way our societies are organised, and the nature of jobs that individuals perform.

We have spend the last century refining our systems, training, education and management…just in time for that to be undermined and disrupted by a new digital revolution with characteristics that take us into the future and back to the past at the same time.

On the one hand, back to the closeness of the village, but this time a virtual closeness in a new “global village” with no boundaries, or commonly agreed rules and regulations.

And on the other hand, forwards into a multiverse of technology connectivity that externalises our senses and nervous system and connects us to others, and to information, ideas and automation never dreamed of in Wilmington, Kent where I grew up. 

Factories, chimneys, machines, smoke, steam and furnaces are hard to miss and we are still living with their industrial impacts on our environment. Digital is a different matter. 

It is largely invisible. Information translated into “1”s and “0”s, transforming the societies we live in across wires and wireless, through devices of many shapes and sizes.

The major currents of the digital revolution driving the change are ever more connection, more collaboration and more integration. And the more, becomes even more every single day.

As a result, innovation is supercharged and the tools of the revolution are relatively cheap, easier to use all the time, and in the hands of imaginative and agile users who’s vision is often disruptive to existing business models, sectors and systems.

Jobs are being created and jobs are being destroyed as a result. But a lot more jobs are being destroyed than created.

And the new jobs require new education, new training and entrepreneurial spirit, not delivered by the current system.

Software development is simpler than ever in an open system and open source world. Problems and issues are identified and attacked by thousands of individuals across the planet, and the results shared to build even better tools.

Most of this activity happens in bedrooms, home offices, cafes, libraries and first floor offices in back streets, industrial estates and above shops, everywhere on the planet.

New products and services are launched and fail. But the cost of failure is low and the learnings are huge. And the agile quickly move on with new ideas, into new fertile relationships and new opportunities.

And that is a problem for establishments of all kinds, whether corporate, government or otherwise, because the disruptive levers are more accessible than ever before and the impacts of these levers can be immense and become widespread without reference to the world that was.

This is a paradigm shift. Power is moving from the top to the bottom of society. Power is shifting from the “vendor” to the customer. Power is shifting from the few to the many. Power is being shared more widely and often more wisely.

The traditional leaders are visionless. The traditional brokers are broken.

As in the industrial revolution, some major impacts can take decades or longer to demonstrate real effect. But there is an almost constant daily stream of minor digital impacts that captures media attention and hides the real disruptive change. There is a lot going on below the media radar. And the collective effects of all that activity are what really create the revolutionary impact.

And in the old world, the established businesses and industries continue with business as usual. They know that something is happening. They can see it in their research, customer comments, forums and general conversations. But they don’t quite know what.

They are like frogs in a well. They have deep knowledge of the “old world environment” they operate in but only a small view of the immense new digital sky. They see a small circle of blue sky and think it is everything

And what do they do?

“Digital? It is just business as usual, with websites, mobile, apps and social media thrown in, isn’t it?” 

Mistake number one.

These guys are just talking to more frogs, in more wells, with more small circles of blue sky above them.

Are they really interested in innovation and change? How would they be able to justify a step out of the well to the board, the management team or staff? It is not easy to really innovate when you have structured yourself so tightly over many years to do the “same old, same old”…always marginally better every year.

They don’t have the budget, the time or the courage (risk!!!) to do anything radical. And that is understandable. Internal cultural issues and priorities suck attention constantly back to business as usual. Better just to tart up the website and appoint a social media manager. At least they can look as though they are innovative.

And mistake number two. The big guys talk to other big guys. They talk to other big organisations like themselves, or speak to the big four consultants. 

“Ribbit, ribbit, ribbit?” “Ribbit, ribbit, ribbit!” Frogspawn is the result.

After all, it is the big organisations that control and manage hundreds and thousands of employees so they must know something, right? 

Of course. They all know how to succeed in the old world. That is why they grew so big and successful in the first place, and maintained their status and position for so many years. They are big frogs in deep wells. But do they know how to succeed in the new world?


There is a lot of talk. But very little action from the big, well established organisations and governments in our society. And any action tends to be tactical not strategic, superficial not transformational, within the individual organisation not sectoral, regional or national.

“We updated the website, made it mobile friendly, built an app and appointed a social media manager. What more do you want?”

Meanwhile, the digital currents of change continue to push us towards ever more connection, more collaboration and more integration, and our capacity to rise to the occasion with imagination, creativity and innovation falls further behind every day.

It is still early days in the digital revolution and there are multitudes of frogs in deep wells out there.

During the industrial revolution, the entire public school system was rationalised and expanded in response to the new demand for “reading, writing and arithmetic”.

Today, old world jobs are being destroyed daily by automation, computerisation and robotisation and economists naively suggest that new jobs will be created to replace them. “They certainly will. But nowhere near enough.

And unless we want to recreate a new “underclass” or “slave class” of underpaid, low skilled retail workers, nannies, cab drivers, handymen, hospitality workers, personal assistants, gardeners, pet care workers, and childcare and aged care support workers, we have to redefine what an education for the new world is supposed to achieve.

For the new “high paying” jobs will be jobs with higher demands. These jobs will demand not just a good education, but continuing education with a different focus than just high grades.

The knowledge economy requires people who are curious and imaginative, with creative problem solving skills, teamwork and collaboration skills, analytic and critical thinking skills, initiative and entrepreneurialism.

People enthusiastic about starting a business. People comfortable with moving from task to task and role to role, loyal to inspired ideas, meaningful goals and real vision. People with a fresh approach to what work is, whether it is with hand (trade skills), eye (design skills) or brain (thinking skills).

These people won’t arise by accident. We have to create the conditions to produce them. In our schools, our universities and our TAFES. And we aren’t.

The disruption is happening much faster than our response in government policy and legislation. We are still generating policy for the old world in education, job creation, employment, health, regional development, industry and export.

In a joined up interconnected new world, we need joined up and interconnected policy and thinking. But government departments are not structured to create it or deliver it.

It is the biggest challenge we face as a nation. A joined up, interconnected revolution being addressed by short term, single-issue policy with an “eye on tomorrow’s ministerial headline and photo opportunity”. And most digital innovations are in cyberspace with nowhere to cut the ribbon or wear a hard hat for the television cameras.

In a joined up world, somehow we have separated the telecommunication infrastructure – the NBN - from the initiatives it would have magnified, enhanced and supported. We have separated the stage from the actors and the actors from the structure of the play.

It all joins up. If we want a cohesive knowledge economy “the knowledge economy story” must be told, “the play” must be written. The acting parts must be defined and the show must go on. And the show requires a reliable platform for the performance to happen. And this needs policy.

We need reliable, affordable, fast broadband, and policies that support an interconnected society, organisations fully informed, understanding digital threats, and recognising digital opportunity. We need collaboration in regions and sectors and between organisations across regions and between sectors.

That is what the RED Toolbox - http://theredtoolbox.org is all about.

But the world keeps changing. And unless a lot of CEOs, politicians, policy makers and other decision makers (80%) get out of “frog thinking” fast, they may well be disrupted out of existence.

New things take time to accept and adopt. The digital revolution is no exception. And you can’t whip a tree and make it grow. But you can optimise its growth through watering, fertilising and pruning.

So what is the right action in a joined up world?

The right action is to support it. With policy. And that means thinking in a different way. It means approaching issues and problems in a different way. It means addressing the issues and problems of society in a different way.

It means looking at economies as interconnected ecosystems. Creating policy for the new interconnected reality of the 21st century not the 1950s.

That might even make some government departments redundant. That might also make “the minister for a thing” irrelevant. We actually need ministerial teams at the federal and state level for the interconnected issues and “wicked problems” we face, not the old world departmental structures we have at the moment.

And at the local government level, councils have to collaborate.

And that means doing something we haven’t done before and that is look at issues from 50,000 metres. Not look at Australia from deep in our wells.

But actually sit down and consider why people get sick and whether there is anything that can be done about it. Consider how we can create and manage a health system not a sickness system.

Consider why we have homeless people on the street in Australia and how to get them off it. Consider why we make commitments to indigenous improvement and consistently fail to achieve them.

Consider whether we are training our kids for the 1950s and whether we might start training them for the 2050s.

Consider how to create more high value, high wage jobs rather than low value, low wage jobs as we are doing at the moment.

Consider whether we can look at the environment we live in and manage it conservatively and intelligently as a connected whole. Like farmers.

Consider each and every “wicked problem” without an assumption that we will fail. Again.

There is real value in being able to address societal change and improvement more effectively than we do at the moment. We are faced with many problems – climate change, food, water, health, illness, jobs, work, homelessness, leadership, digital disruption, war and peace.

There is no sign that we are managing any of these “wicked problems” successfully using the government and governing “methodologies” we have established over hundreds of years.

Because at the moment all we are doing is messing with the problems. Poking them with a stick. Making half-hearted gestures (no budget). Short term gestures (no commitment). And then wondering why nothing seems to be improving very much at all. 

Maybe the mechanisms we are employing are the wrong mechanisms. Can departments and individual policy officers in departments address the “wicked problems”?

No of course not. It is not that they aren’t trained, intelligent and motivated. Most of them are. But nobody is actually asking them to address these issues in an interconnected way, without boundaries to consideration. Nobody is giving them the time and space or opportunity to try.

We are taking highly trained racehorses and making them pull milk carts.

In a joined up world, we need a joined up “government department” to pursue the possibilities. Thinking in a joined up way. Acting in a joined up way. We have the technology.

But that will only happen if requested by political leadership. It won’t happen by accident.

And while digital disrupts it also transforms. Digital disruption is matched by the opportunity for digital transformation. And the transformation operates under different rules than before.

We are in the midst of a digital revolution that is joining everything up, with the currents of change driving ever more connection, more collaboration and more integration. The technology is widespread, multinational and interconnected, but we are still thinking too narrowly about what that means.

We need to be thinking collaboratively and in a joined up way. The thinking and the technology must align.

And who needs to be thinking like this? Everyone. Because if we don’t start thinking like this, our actions won’t follow.

We have the brains, the businesses, the imagination, the inventors, the individuals, the enthusiasm and the creativity but it is all being held back. Not deliberately, but by lack of joined up thinking, joined up decisions and joined up policy followed by joined up action.

It is time to let the innovation loose.

Is it possible? Yes.

Is it uncomfortable? Of course.

So let’s do it.

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Monday, 15 October 2018