When two letters make a huge difference: digitalisation vs. digitisation

There are plenty of jokes told at weddings about the phrases that make for happy marriages, such as ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘you’re right’. Two words, it is said, make an awful lot of difference.

But two letters can also mean a world of difference. Think of ‘happy’ and ‘unhappy’, for example. Or, just for the sake of argument, digitisation and digitalisation. If you are now confused, thinking that these last two meant the same thing, think again.

Defining the difference

The two terms are often used interchangeably, and have been for some time. They are certainly closely related. But some commentators are now starting to argue that there is a value in using them for different purposes, and making a clear distinction between them. And while some sources, notably Wikipedia, cross-refer them, the gold standard of the Oxford English Dictionary already has two very distinct definitions.

Digitisation is basically automation, or moving from analogue to digital. It saves time, and makes things easy. Fundamentally, it is about doing the same things in different ways, supported by technology. It often, though not always, focuses on processes. Digitisation has been around for a long time: Morse code is a form of digitisation, because it puts information into a different form that makes it easier to manage.

Digitalisation, on the other hand, is total transformation to create a digital business. It means using technology to engage with customers in a different way, and deliver what they need. There is nothing easy about it, because it requires organisations to redefine their meaning and purpose, often across the whole business. Confusing these two can therefore lead to a lot of pain.

That which we call a rose…

Are we dancing on the head of a pin here? Do two letters really make all that much difference? The answer is both yes and no.

No, in the sense that the precise term does not make much odds. As Shakespeare wrote, “that which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet”. What does matter is that the terms that we use give us a shared understanding. To go back to Shakespeare, of course you could call a rose a dustbin, and it would still be beautiful and smell lovely. But other people would be quite confused if you talked about going into the garden to admire the dustbins.

The important issue, therefore, is to define what you are going to do very clearly. Whether digitalisation or digitisation, it is important to set out expectations, and engage the right people from the start. Get it wrong, and you will have confusion, frustration and downright rebellion from your stakeholders, internal and external.

A digitisation project is likely to be much simpler. It will involve mainly the IT department, together with perhaps one or two business units. It will require process change. Yes, it will be disruptive, but not earth-shattering. There may be teething problems, but it should settle down reasonably quickly. Customers are unlikely to notice much difference, except an improvement in efficiency: a smoother experience, perhaps.

A digitalisation project, by contrast, needs strong engagement with customers and staff alike. It will require redefining customer needs, and then finding ways to use technology to address them. Cultural change among both staff and customers may be necessary.

Healthcare records could be considered a simple example of both types of project. The move to every clinic or surgery having electronic records for each of its patients, rather than handwritten, is digitisation. It does not affect patients, but improves the efficiency with which staff can make and retrieve notes. Staff need to buy in to the process, but patients need not even know that a change has taken place.

The move towards a centrally-held record for each patient, accessible to any healthcare practitioner treating that patient, is digitalisation. Because of the privacy implications, it requires patient consent, which in turn means communication and engagement with patients and potential patients. It also means staff across all sites understanding a different way of working, with direct communication about patients, and the need to secure information within and beyond the site.

A question of degree

The distinction between digitisation and digitalisation is often a question of degree. Digitisation is likely to be a necessary precursor to digitalisation. On its own, however, it is now not enough for success. Digitalisation, the ‘next step’, will take considerably more work. But the benefits for staff, customers and businesses will also be much greater.

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