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Digital Humanism: The Outside of Cyberspace

  |  July 31, 2002   |  Comments

The machines may be running the applications, but don't forget who's running the machines.

Did you ever wonder what's on the far side of cyberspace? What you'd find if you could get to and look just beyond the farthest edge of the Internet? You'd be disappointed to encounter the obvious truth: On the other side of the digital world is the old analog one.

In fact and fiction -- from the idea of a worldwide electronic membrane of bits by the zillions zapping along cables of glass to the fictive surrealism of "Neuromancer" and "The Matrix" -- there's no escaping ourselves. The hard truth is most (maybe all) of us are designing digital media into the pre-existing analog world.

Though it's not the only approach to building the digital world, it does have merit. We should design the digital to fit into the analog, and be self-conscious about it, because that's where we humans live. In the nine-to-five part of the analog world, this obvious observation yields a hard-boiled pragmatism when it comes to managing a company's Web presence -- one that shows up with particular clarity in certain assignments.

For example, a global Web presence is clearly the online realization of a number of decisions about communications management. The technical task is configuring certain administrators with the rights to publish, archive, access, converse, and conduct transactions with certain users, databases, and applications. These technical configurations reflect certain business decisions, such as headquarter control versus frontline autonomy, global consistency versus local customization, and quality assurance versus market responsiveness. In sociopolitical terms, the design of a global Web presence reveals -- indeed, highlights -- the relationships between power, authority, and responsibility in communication production. In short, technology reflects analog-world decisions and interests, and digital services needs to address them explicitly and courageously.

Since the late 19th century, multinational giants have struggled with these tensions in the social relations of communication production. No single set of answers has ever been proven definitively right. Deciding how to organize a company's global Web presence simply poses all those questions anew.

To be sure, the online palette offers new ways to address these old tensions, but it's not just an opportunity. Professionalism obliges digital advisors to expose and make explicit the required decisions about the distribution of power, authority, and responsibility in a global enterprise's communications operation. This should happen on the drawing board, by mapping out information systems as infrastructures for the social relationships of communications production and by addressing every distinctive set of particulars -- budgets, careerism, institutional momentum, corporate politics, risk aversion, opportunity costs, and so on. In short, when designing the digital world into the analog one, dealing with the analog one is part of the job. If not, be content to be a production studio.

Designing a brand's global Web presence also demonstrates the reverse. The digital world not only shapes real-world relationships but also requires real-world resources that go well beyond server hardware and its maintenance. For almost every global Web infrastructure designed today, two functions constitute a lowest common denominator: site content needs regular refreshing, and the data it generates needs collecting (and usually processing). However easy to administer today's Web applications may be, these two functions, at least, require humans with certain skills and some time. This fact triggers some hard questions about staff levels, roles and responsibilities, hiring, training, operating integration, approval rules, and so on.

What's more, the analog world is filled with prior relationships that the arrival of a new information system almost always threatens. Making matters worse, the benefits of a distributed Web presence to a local market are often not as great as the benefits that accrue to the center.

Infrastructure is not enough. Every global architecture of distributed applications needs to be brought to ground by anticipating and specifying the tasks those systems require at the local level and the real-world resources those tasks demand. An owner's manual and a resource estimate should be obligatory in every scope of global work.

Finally, the digital lives in the analog as just one weapon in the arsenal. A few years ago, novelty made the Net a necessity. Today, every company has done its online minimum, and the new economy movement is in disarray. Additional digital spending requires not only a comparison of costs and benefits against other options but also adeptness in linking digital and the other disciplines into collective endeavors.

In a July 15 article in the Financial Times, Sir Martin Sorrell, chief executive officer of WPP (full disclosure: my employer's parent company) put the analogous challenge of orchestrating the parent company's resources plainly:

You're continually trying to network opportunities between the various businesses.... It's about making sure that each of the businesses understands what the other businesses can do. It's about proper training, it's about proper incentives, it's about the proper evaluation of people and whether they're co-operative or not. It's about all those things.

Management is, in Sir Martin's words, "messy" because it requires understanding, diplomacy, leadership, and other skills for navigating a complex analog world of rich resources. It's the same real world into which digital must fit, and pioneering the digital path in that world requires a set of similarly "messy" management skills and commitments.

Of course, cyberspace has its own rules. Virtuous circles, peer-to-peer collaboration, co-evolution with one's customers, and other "network effects" do exist and create dramatic new opportunities. They impact activities ranging from product research and development and supply chain integration to product launches and customer retention. But it's also clear that a company's digital dimension is not a thing apart.

Rather, professionalism and realism require digital goals be pursued as part and parcel of the management of the enterprise's communications function. In fact, the more the digital space embraces its analog context, the more pragmatic and successful it typically is. That's a good thing. Humans should always strive to be the alpha and omega of our machines.

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Len Ellis Until recently, Len Ellis was executive vice president at Wunderman, where he charted the course in data-based and technology-enabled marketing communications, including the firm's strategic alliances and worldwide interactive strategy. Earlier, he was managing director, interactive integration at Y&R 2.1, a Young & Rubicam start-up consulting unit. He joined Y&R Group as managing director, interactive services at Burson-Marsteller. Len led interactive services at Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer EuroRSCG, and started and led the information industry practice at Fleishman-Hillard. Len's book of essays on marketing, based in part on this column, is "Marketing in the In-Between: A Post-Modern Turn on Madison Avenue." He received his Ph.D. from Columbia and reads informational and mathematical theory for fun.

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