“What’s the value in pixels?” – the ethos of digital change

Carley Hollis
Thursday 5 March 2015

Two weeks ago, Paul Boag, co-founder of digital consultancy Headscape and author of Digital Adaption gave a lecture to staff at the University. Titled ‘Digital change’, the talk outlined how digital has changed the world around us, and in turn has changed us as well. The lecture was hugely engaging and incorporated a vital message for not only those who work in digital, but for all staff at the University.

Watch Paul Boag’s lecture, and read on to find out about how the digital communications team are embracing the ethos of digital change.

A changing world

In 1999, video-rental firm Blockbuster commissioned a report about how digital might change their business. Their finding?

Quote from Blockbuster internal report in 1999: "Blockbuster quote - Investor concern over the threat of new technologies is overstated"
“Investor concern over the threat of new technologies is overstated.”

A year later, Blockbuster turned down a chance to purchase a fledgling online video distribution brand – Netflix.

Fifteen years after that the last branches of Blockbusters have closed.

Compare that with another one-time giant, Kodak. Founded in 1888, for a hundred years the company was the dominant player in the photography industry.

But as the use of photographic film waned and the digital camera became widespread and affordable, Kodak faltered. In the words of one report:

Quote about Kodak from Sustainable Strategic Management (2014) "Kodak executives could not fathom a world without traditional film."
“Kodak executives could not fathom a world without traditional film.”

Slow to transition to a world where digital photography is the norm, they filed for bankruptcy in 2012. Whilst Kodak emerged from bankruptcy the following year, much of their revenue now comes from aggressive patent litigation – a long way from their origins.

In summary? One company adapted to a digital world. The other did not. The inability to adapt to a world which is changing around us is one of the biggest risks to institutions today – and that includes the University of St Andrews.

The rise of digital has changed people

During his lecture, Paul Boag illustrated the problem of a changing world; there’s a divide between those who knew the world as it was before, and those who only understand it as it is now. “What’s the value in pixels?”, he asked, vocalising a question that’s being pondered across the world in boardrooms and management offices. The answer? The value lies in the people who are willing to pay for non-physical products just as readily as physical ones; the designers who pay monthly to use Adobe Photoshop without ever owning a physical copy, the musicians who only sell digital files of their songs, the students who choose a subscription to Netflix over DVDs. Millennials are digital natives – they’ve never lived in a world without a fast internet connection, without smartphones, without digital services as products. It should come as no surprise that they have high expectations of digital services – they don’t see the distinction between ‘digital’ and ‘physical’ that the rest of the world does.

What does that mean for us?

Institutions like us don’t have time to waste. By 2016, some of the students who matriculate at St Andrews will have been born in 2000; they truly are millennials. We need to realise that if we do not work to meet the needs of these students – recognise that their needs are different to the need of students of even five years ago – then we will be failing them. And if we are failing students, we are at risk of failing as an institution.

The digital communications team wants to put the needs of users at the heart of everything that we do; we believe that in a changing world, it’s the only way to meet the strategic goals of the organisation. Digital needs to be integrated into our processes and practices because that is what the future generations of students and of people are demanding. Any institution who cannot do this is at risk of becoming outdated, like Kodak – or redundant, like Blockbuster.

Lawrance Summers - Harvard quote "The solid classical buildings of great universities may look permanent, but the storms of change now threaten them."
“The solid classical buildings of great universities may look permanent, but the storms of change now threaten them.”

The ethos of digital change

The digital communications team’s goal is to one day be unnecessary. As time goes on, digital will be so ingrained in our jobs (and our lives) that having a team who deals solely with ‘digital’ will seem outdated. Until then, the digital communications team is here to help the University through this transition period; a temporary measure to build skills and confidence in all staff. We aim to be user advocates and digital educators; the voice of the user as we, and the rest of the institution, work towards a digital future.

Following that course, the digital communications team is close to completing a new version of the University website homepage – a project which has had users at its centre from the very beginning. From creating user personas including ‘Alan the alum’ to undertaking usability testing on students outside the library, we’ve tried to create a product which will meet the needs of the people who visit the digital front door of the University.

That’s not to say it’s perfect – and that’s why the digital communications team is set to iterate on our work so far in our next project – we will be incorporating feedback and data analysis into our designs and content going forward.

There are still many questions to be answered. Institutions across the world are starting to wonder whether there will still be a need for libraries in ten years time, when books are digital and accessible anywhere. Universities such as Harvard and MIT have started offering MOOCs – massive open online courses – in addition to the traditional further education route. The only way to prepare ourselves for yet more digital change is twofold; place users at the heart of all of our decisions, and be adaptable to change as the world advances. That is the true ethos of digital change.

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