Part 2 of a 3 part series. What differentiates the industrial, digital and social eras, and why is it important? We began yesterday in part 1 of the series by examining context for the industrial era. Today, we look at the digital era.
This is not going to achieve a comprehensive encyclopedic reference for the terms, nor a canonical history for the eras they refer to. The intent is to share context to ensure when we use the terms, collectively we have a common understanding.
Many only know technology by experiencing iPhones and the app store. We all know these other eras happened, but what characteristics made them interesting? How are they foundational to content and delivery platforms of the present? How did these eras change our perception of things, in terms of thinking, leadership, innovation and other domains?
Your experience, embellishment and stories welcome in the Comments section.
Part two, my perception of the digital era, follows
The Digital Era
The Digital era often referred to as the Information Age, arguably began in the 1960s and accelerated through the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s of the last century. Many aspects do and must persist today. (My nostalgia links it to the MIT Tech Model Railroad Club.)
Technology shifted from a tool to affect physical things, to one that affected digital things. It existed to create, access, manage, and mine, information. The ratio of disruptive innovation to incremental innovation increased.
From Potential to Kinetic Content
The business potential of digital technology was significantly greater than the prior era. Moving bits and bytes is easier and faster than moving iron, steel, concrete and timber. The digital era began the shift in our thinking from, “what could we potentially build with materials we had?” To a question of, “what kind of kinetic content was possible?”
It was a period identified by the use of digital tools to automate manual tasks. The Wang word processor pioneered the shift from the typewriter to a turnkey digital system that could edit and re-type documents automatically. Wang was followed by names like WordStar, WordPerfect, and others who pioneered written words as digital content. Intergraph, Computervision and later on, Autodesk created Computer Aided Drafting systems that changed design and engineering. The remarkable thing about these software systems was that they marked the beginning of mass distributed tools to create and retain digital content.
The digital era accelerated the concept for the reusable platform for both software tools and data. Mass-distributed consumer computer operating systems emerged such as MS DOS, and the IBM PC. (Yes, tip of the hat to DEC, UNIX and a host of others that built hardware and software platforms). The platform enabled VisiCalc, then Lotus 123 to change ledgers into spreadsheets. Ashton Tate’s Dbase III enabled relational databases, and email automated written communication.
Suddenly software companies were automating any and repetitious task. Yet, while the advent of the platform was disruptive, automating many of these processes and tasks was only incremental innovation. People produced documents before, and now, produced them on a computer, for example. Disruption would be to eliminate the need for documents altogether. People suggested there could be a “paperless office,” but statistics showed that was not happening.
Consumerism Grows Up
The digital era nurtured consumerism. New business models emerged to capture and sustain commercial value. The sparks of innovation began to ignite inside people, which could not be suppressed. The concept of new firm formation was liberated from the wealthy. Entrepreneurism accelerated and shifted from starting local business to building global corporations.
Software companies tried to straddle business models for hard goods (buy it, and maintain it business models – like automobiles). IT departments justified their existence by “validation testing” new releases, and delayed deployment of the latest technology. Users and consumers revolved, and subscription models emerged – pay once, and get all the updates for an annual subscription – just like a magazine.
We can look back now at this and see that this was a necessary step to jump to cloud and client models and to support the vast array of devices today using yet another operating system platform, the internet.
Management and Education Fail To Evolve
Early on, companies in the digital era were (mis-)managed by legacy leaders who were chosen by their skill in perfecting factory throughput. The information age didn’t have traditional factories – it introduced new concepts for software factories, everywhere. Management and innovation was blind. It was mired in legacy approaches and methods of the past.
Business schools continued to teach the old ways of Taylorism and scientific management. We know now that scaling steel mill management thinking cannot harness creativity of programmers and free thinkers. Traditional command and control management style was weighed, measured, and found wanting. Rigid organization structure and waterfall processes were strained. People clamored to be part of the new innovation gene pool. Free thinking, participation and collaboration replaced fear-based do-as-you-are-told labor.
The digital era exposed a glimpse of what was possible, in the social era to come – and ignited companies like Apple, Microsoft, and others to think radically different, while focusing on the customer, in creating new products and services for tomorrow.
Industrial, Digital, Social
Up next, tomorrow, The Social Era.
For what it’s worth, I jumped into the go-go hey days of Silicon Valley and the Bay Area in the mid 80s. It was a time that anyone could learn to do anything. At Autodesk, we had the brightest minds. And some of the best programmers did not have a college education. Some even had criminal backgrounds. It was a gene pool of excitement that we were creating something new, and everyone had a role to play and knew what that role was.
The current environment of credentials, background checks and drug testing would never have allowed what was happening in the 80s and 90s to take the digital era to where it eventually ignited the social era. One day, Timothy Leary showed up at our Friday beer bust – demonstrating a software version of augmented reality – his kind. It’s hard to imagine that happening at 1871, TechStars, or a Lightbank event.
Leave a comment and share how you have experienced the industrial era. How would you further define it in the context for the three eras for this series?
Image Credits: WANG Labs System 2200 advertisement, Compaq Portable 286 advertisement, in the public domain.