Is ‘digital transformation’ similar to the industrial revolution?

I apologise if you are expecting some great insights as my point is rather modest.

When I studied the Industrial revolution for A level History one thing stuck in my mind. Earlier books on the subject had titles that confidently stated ‘The Industrial revolution 1785-1815’ or similar. The period was clearly defined.  As were the people and technology – Arkwright and the spinning Jenny; Watt and the steam engine; Stevenson and the Rocket. Legitimate legends one and all. The changes were – automation, mechanisation, lots of digging and drilling; mills and factories – the decline of the hand-loom weavers.

However the more I read the more I noticed people saying, ‘well maybe the time period is a bit restricted?’ ‘I can see some earlier industrialisation in the early 1700s’. By the time I finished reading the ‘revolution’ was being pushed back much further back to when the Cornish tin mines existed. Equally the end date started getting pushed forward and the depth and width of the changes to society were questioned. In fact was there really a revolution at all?

So is there a comparison with ‘digital transformation’. I am using the inverted commas deliberately. What is digital and what is transformation?

Is/was Mike Bracken James Watt? Are developers being industrialised for the public sector? Are they previously independent ‘craftsmen’ in a cottage industry made cunningly to feel at home producing industrial code in centres of ‘digital excellence’? Is flexible/remote working and shiny devices the modern digital equivalent of factory schools – a way for ‘benevolent employers’ to tie workers to an industrial routine?

I have a distinct feeling that in decades someone will look back and say – ‘how many consultants made fortunes peddling the snake oil of digital transformation‘? On the side of the bottle it said it would cure – high expenditure; demotivated staff; fix legacy systems; guaranteed to give you satisfied users. Equally how many authors will have made an easy buck  with ‘Digital transformation for dummies’; ‘Lean digital transformation’; ‘The digital waterfall transformed’.  Or conference organisers coin cash from events called ‘How digital transformed my X organisation’; ‘What have we learnt from digital transformation?’; ‘Digital transformation from the users’ perspective’. (These are all made up by the way).

You get the point.

As I said a while ago the similarity is probably that the Industrial Revolution turned out to be difficult to define, describe or date – I expect something similar to be found with ‘digital transformation’.


3 thoughts on “Is ‘digital transformation’ similar to the industrial revolution?”

  1. I’m sure you are right that it will be hard to pin down when looking back from the future, partly because it’s hard to pin down now. But it’s worth separating the first and second order effects to understand how slow even radical transformation can be.

    The first order effect is the availability of new technology – the spinning jenny, the electric motor, general purpose computers, smartphones. They create the possibility of radical transformation, but they don’t create the transformation itself. The second order effects can be much slower and more subtle – the classic example was the replacement of steam power in factories by electric motors. Initially big, central steam engines, transmitting power around the factory by belts and chains (and killing the odd worker along the way) were replaced by big electric motors transmitting power physically in the same way. It wasn’t until factories were built around the radical idea of small electric motors delivering power at the point of use. There’s a good post by Diane Coyle making that point with some other examples.

    I don’t know enough about the early industrial revolution to draw the right parallels, but my guess is that they would be there to find. The fascinating question is then what are the longer term change effects of digital transformation which we might not yet be spotting. Will digital destroy supermarkets, for example? Or coming at it from the other end, are we achieving a transformation or just a stay of execution?

    Maybe there’s an idea for a conference in there somewhere…

    1. Whoops, a few words lost in transmission in the previous comment:

      It wasn’t until factories were built around the radical idea of small electric motors delivering power at the point of use that the real changes in work organisation and productivity could be achieved.

    2. Thanks Stefan, yes as ever you are absolutely right – its a fascinating subject about how change of different kinds could be plotted at a number of different levels. I might start organising that conference. Cheers Nick

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