When the disrupters are disrupted: What is the future for digital professionals?

The Great Wave off Kanagawa

The talk of the moment is digital transformation. It is said that we are in a transitional period. Institutions must make a concerted effort to adapt to the digital era.

Workforces — especially those in senior management positions — are still largely made up of people who can remember what life was like before digital. But one day digital natives — those who cannot remember a pre-digital era — will be in the majority.

The logical conclusion of the idea of digital transformation is that one day digital becomes so normal that you no longer need specific initiatives or a dedicated digital team. It will just be embedded as part of our everyday life, just like electricity.

So what does that mean for those of us who work in digital?

The importance of our roles for today is confirmed. But one day we will be redundant. Indeed, if we do our jobs correctly, we will necessarily be out of that job. It might be in 5 or 10 or 15 years time, but one day it will happen.

But human nature dictates that we will grasp to keep our jobs regardless. And we are already beginning to see the signs.

You don’t see disruption coming

The advent of digital has shaken up and even destroyed some companies. Kodak once had a market share of 90% in the photography market. Today, when photography is more ubiquitous than ever, Kodak is almost nothing.

Just 16 years ago the video rental store chain Blockbuster said in an internal report, “Investor concern over the threat of new technologies is overstated.” It then turned its nose up at buying Netflix way back in the year 2000. Today the firm no longer exists.

Whole industries have faced existential challenges in the face of digital. The music industry and journalism may survive in some form, but forever scarred by the changes the internet brought.

You don’t necessarily see such a disruption coming. It has not escaped me that this could be the case for the digital industry itself as well.

There is an irony in the idea that those of us involved in this most disruptive of events — the digital revolution — should eventually become disrupted ourselves. Some of the struggles that I have been thinking about recently have been crystallised in this article by Blair Enns (via Paul Boag).

Back to square one

It reminds me of how I thought when I first landed a job in the web. I wasn’t convinced that I had skills in the web, or that it even could be a job. I was only persuaded to apply for the job when a reader of my blog suggested it to me. I got the job, but for a while I couldn’t quite understand why.

After a few weeks in the job I started to realise. All that stuff about the web that I understood (largely by being a user of it; partly because of my interest in it; partly because of my age) did not come naturally to many others. I found out that my web chops were real skills. Running a website was not just the hobby it was before.

In digital, it seems as though being younger is a real advantage. As digital develops, each subsequent generation will bring with it its own unique insight into how it operates.

So now I find myself asking those same questions again. What if, in 10 years time, I no longer have the skills to work effectively in digital?

We are advised that our roles are about helping society transform to the digital age. So what happens when the transformation is complete?

We need more than just a digital sticking plaster

This kind of existential crisis is currently slowly hitting the entire digital profession. You can see it in the way it is now described as ‘digital’ rather than ‘web’.

A big theme of last year’s Institutional Web Management Workshop was the move from describing ourselves as web teams to digital. That switch has indeed taken place where I work. Two years ago I worked for the web team. Now that team is called the digital communications team.

For some, this switch has been as simple as swapping out the words and keeping your work the same. People doing this are going to be shown up. This is much more fundamental than a cute rebrand.

The technology challenges are being solved

Talking about the web is beginning to feel hopelessly old hat. This 1980s technology is my passion. But its relative relevance is fading in comparison with more recent developments.

Technology improves year on year. As Blair Enns’s article notes, “A functionality that might have cost a client $50k – $100k to build three years ago is now a $19/month plugin.”

Regular people can already create their own websites very easily. In effect, they have already been able to do so since the beginning of the web. But gradually the barrier to entry has lowered, and it continues to do so.

WordPress has been a viable option for many for at least 10 years. Today anyone can set up a beautiful looking website using a service such as Squarespace, with zero technical knowledge.

Even those of us who still dabble in code use frameworks such as Bootstrap to cut out a lot of our work. After all, why reinvent the wheel?

As a society we are getting on top of the puzzles that the web brought. The technical challenges have been largely cracked.

Digital professionals are encroaching on other areas

Many web and digital teams were once comprised mainly of techies. In recent years, they have evolved to include more and more content experts.

We find that the true value of our work is in people management, organisational change management, content, user research… the list goes on.

What troubles me is that most of these are jobs that other professionals have been doing for decades or more.

Sure, the web is a different medium which requires a different approach to content. But one day soon that won’t be seen as writing for the web. It will simply be seen as good writing.

Many web experts are moving into user research, myself included. But wouldn’t trained ethnographers be better at that job?

Part of the recent criticism aimed at the user-led approach of Gov.uk, covered in a previous article, is that staff of the Government Digital Service have a “lack of any skills or knowledge other than webpage design”. The criticism may (or may not) be unfounded. But it may well be true of other web designers who seek to move into other areas of work.

As for organisational change, is that not traditionally the role of a human resources department?

Some digital professionals used to sneer at colleagues who appeared not to be able to move with the times, clinging onto roles that were rapidly becoming redundant. We are in danger of becoming those people.

When the floor falls away from the digital industry, what will you do?

Potential ways forward

There is some cause for optimism. This is not a new problem. The job for life has been becoming less relevant for a long time. Change is a fact of life. It’s how you deal with it that counts.

Blair Enns’s article offers three ways out for agencies currently putting all their eggs in the web design basket.

User experience (UX) design is identified as the main area of the digital profession that might still be in demand for a decade or more. The beauty of UX design is that it incorporates a lot of ideas that have grown out of web design, but are fundamentally about incorporating other aspects — print materials, face-to-face interactions, and so on — to ensure a cohesive experience.

A UX designer solves the client’s problem by solving the user’s first. She also serves as a translator between engineering, product marketing and marketing and works at an excruciating level of complexity and detail to make things simple. I’ve never been clear if UX design is a thing on it’s own or if it’s the highest expression of digital design, but I know a UX designer by looking at her work and I know most firms that claim they “also” do UX design don’t. I think fundamentally you come at the problem from the user’s side or the client’s.

This cheers me, because it’s exactly the direction I’ve been going in. The achievement I am proudest of at work has been pushing the organisation towards a more user-centred design approach and formally adopting UX techniques. For a while we talked the talk, and now we are beginning to walk the walk.

More optimism comes later in the article:

Unlike 2009, the disease running through the herd today is not economic but merely the ever-increasing pace of change – the absolute majesty of the exponential growth curve. If you think this happened quick, stick around for what happens next. Just make sure the pace of your own innovation matches the majesty of that curve.

I am reminded of what it is about working in the web that I enjoy so much: the fantastic pace of change. Almost every year since I started, the makeup of my work has changed almost unrecognisably since the previous year.

As a career, the web and digital fundamentally attracts people who find change thrilling, and are eager to continuously learn.

Digital professionals will be OK come the end of the transformation, just as long as we can show we still have the stomach for change — and genuinely embrace it.

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