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The dawning of the Digital Age

by Paul Hudson
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Understanding how humans adapt to technological changes is critical for organisations to thrive in the Digital Age  
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Society is being reshaped by seismic shifts in technology

If there are any lingering doubts that the Digital Age has finally arrived, now is the time to dispel them.

We are no longer on the cusp of it. We have all - to a greater or lesser degree - become Digital Citizens, which means we are both witnessing and participating in seismic change which permeates every aspect of our daily lives from work to play, education to commerce.

Rapid technological advances, the launch of increasingly intelligent consumer-friendly devices, and a marked acceleration in people using the internet and mobile devices worldwide provide compelling evidence that we have finally crossed the Rubicon. The challenge now is to understand the significance of this for citizens in the Digital Age.

Historians argue about the precise onset of the Industrial Revolution, the last period of such profound and widespread change. Equally, arguments abound on what marked the start of the Digital Age - from the birth of the Internet in 1969, to Motorola’s first mobile phone in 1973, the launch of IBM’s first PC in 1981, or last year’s launch of Apple’s iPad.

The earlier events laid the foundations for the Digital Age, as did telecoms liberalisation, the rollout of broadband access, cheap mobile phones, cloud computing, and more recently social media.

Apple, along with Google, YouTube, Amazon, Sony, Facebook and Twitter are in the pantheon of game-changers in the Digital Age. Their innovations have changed the way we interact with technology, bringing it into every sphere of our lives.

What is clear is that adoption of the internet and digital technology has now been achieved on a mass scale. There are two billion internet users worldwide, according to the United Nations International Telecommunications Union (ITU), while the number of mobile phone users worldwide has breached five billion, with close to one billion of these 3G subscribers.

To put that in perspective, the global population is 6.8 billion, so almost one in three citizens worldwide now accesses the web, while mobile phone ownership has skyrocketed.

The high growth phenomenon is not restricted to the developed world, in fact 57% of internet users are in developing countries. Mobile phone usage is also mushrooming in poorer nations as comparatively low costs make it more affordable than a fixed phone line.

The proliferation of hi-tech devices has resulted in a deluge of digital traffic, with 200,000 text messages sent every second worldwide and 50 million tweets a day. The latter statistic highlights the rapid spread of social networking activity in particular, as Twitter was only launched in 2007.

Arguably, Facebook is outpacing all-comers as the most rapidly growing internet activity, with 600 million users worldwide, including 30 million in the UK (or half the population). Facebook’s popularity has accelerated sharply, highlighting changing trends in the way we use the internet and what propels us to go online.

Citizens of all ages have mastered the internet, albeit at different speeds and with different drivers and competency levels. The number of internet users globally has doubled since 2005 and has risen by a staggering 444% since 2000.

In the earliest days of the internet it was used on static devices, largely PCs, with fixed internet access and overwhelmingly in a work or academic context. Even 10 years ago internet use was mainly directional, transactional and relatively brief.

Now the internet is all-pervasive - like electricity, we take it for granted as part of the basic infrastructure of the modern world.

The tasks we undertake online span shopping, socialising, learning, enjoying music and soon it seems we will even be able to use our smartphone as a mobile wallet or payment device if ‘wave and pay’ trials succeed.

In short, we now have unprecedented freedom to use the internet to do a multitude of tasks anytime, anywhere. The significance of reaching this point cannot be underestimated as technological change is driving far-reaching behavioural change.

Behavioural change is being driven by a decreased emphasis on physical location; ubiquitous internet access; greater connectivity; increased social interaction; and integration of different forms of communication.

The rising use of mobile devices is also a key factor: smartphones now account for 30-40% of mobile phone sales and more model launches and an ever-increasing number of applications available, are underpinning upward sales momentum. The result is that the internet is increasingly both mobile and ubiquitous.

The launch of Apple’s iPad last year marked a major milestone for the Digital Age as its size, design and ease of use brought mobile internet to a new multigenerational audience. The sale of the latest version triggered global buying stampedes and catapulted Apple into top slot in the leading 100 global brands.

Observing how people use such devices is critical to understanding the dynamics of the Digital Age and we have charted clear differences in the way people used fixed-access and mobile internet. On mobile devices, users characteristically access the internet in short sharp bursts to conduct specific tasks or solve problems, rather than for longer general browsing.

We have conducted rigorous research into both the context in which people use devices and the impact on their lives. Our research yielded unique insights and led us to develop unique classifications which accurately describe how different groups within society are responding in the Digital Age.

The most marked differences in both behaviour and attitude are between older people or ‘Adaptive Immigrants’ to the Digital Age and younger people or ‘Digital Natives.’ The differences are even more pronounced between the older generation and ‘a subset of Digital Natives - ‘M-Agers’ or those born from around 1997 onwards who have grown up in a world of internet and mobile phones.

The way M-Agers learn, think and communicate is different - they multi-task, they use multi-communication channels and (unlike Adaptive Immigrants) they see little or no distinction between the real world and the virtual world.

By 2018 they will begin entering the workplace in significant numbers which means it is imperative that organisations wishing to engage with them as employees, colleagues or customers understand how they operate.

The issues are far from simple as the Digital Age has both new tools and new rules. Some interaction is now entirely online, devoid of the visual and aural clues man has relied upon for centuries to decode social messages. In their place is a new unwritten etiquette, new vocabulary (abbreviations LOL, OMG, etc.) and emoticons which can have different meanings in different cultures.

Our latest research into social networking behaviour revealed a clear generation gap. It showed that the average 22 year old boasts 1,000 online friends compared to fewer than 20 for the average 52-year old, yet in the real world the picture may be very different as we are forced to re-examine the definition of friendship in the Digital Age.

On top of this is the tricky issue of moral relativism as ethical codes in the virtual world do not always mirror those of the real world. This can affect sensitive issues such as confidentiality and ownership which may impact not only on interpersonal relations but also on commercial relations between individuals and organisations.

For those who think that our arrival in the Digital Age will be accompanied by a slower pace of change, think again. The next decade will herald equally momentous change and the breakneck pace we have witnessed, if anything, is likely to accelerate.

Technological change causes disruption of the status quo. It was true in the Industrial Revolution and remains equally true in the Digital Age.

It forces us to challenge the way we operate and interact on every level. It requires us to reassess the skills we must master and to re-examine and maybe even redesign the kind of products and services we must offer if we are to remain competitive and relevant to an increasingly demanding and diverse customer base.

Change is the new normal in the Digital Age. The only certainty in this uncertain future is that it will become more radical. However, change also creates new opportunities for those prepared to embrace and respond to it in a positive and dynamic way.

For businesses operating in a fast-moving multi-channel environment, the three watchwords for the future are ‘connectivity, integration and interaction.’ Organisations must not only attain a solid understanding of these issues, they must also possess the determination and imagination to draw on this insight to formulate a strategy for success in the Digital Age.

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