Digital has now become the lingua franca of our times, whether it is for driving cars or rigging elections. But, in a large number of cases the use of computer technology is perceived to be digital. That is only half the story and does not unleash the full potential of the technology.
Consider for instance the simple matter of the text messages being sent by various service providers reminding users of payments due. Most of these reminders end with the sentence, “Ignore this message if you have already paid”. Users must surely be wondering how difficult it is in this age of technology for such service providers to separate subscribers who have paid their bills and those who have not and send the message only to those who have not paid the bills. But, no, the service providers will not change. And, when asked, such service providers will point out that they are using digital technologies – after all they have saved on paper, using mobile telephony, etc.
Or, for example, consider the use of Facebook during the 2016 elections in USA. Both, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump used the platform in their election campaigns. In fact Hillary Clinton, outspent her opponent by a wide margin. Yet, her opponent won. Nefarious or not, Ms Clinton’s opponent won by using the power of technology in tailoring and delivering messages suited to almost an individual level rather than using Facebook as an advertising medium.
Both these instances are examples of a superficial application of computing technologies without really understanding the true power of these technologies. In the first case, the mere use of text messaging and in Hillary Clinton’s case the mere use of social media is deemed digital, when in fact, it is merely the first baby step in the path to going digital.
Digitising vs Digitalising
The dictionary defines digitise and digitalise the same way as ‘converting analog data into a digital form that can be processed by a computer’. We would like to state this differently. To digitise is to convert analog data into a digital form; to digitalise is to use digitised data to support decisions, enable transactions and exchange information at very large scale and concurrently across enabled devices with only the basic required human involvement.
So what does this mean. Consider the issuance of railway ticketing by Indian Railways. Indians of a certain era will recall a time when planning a rail journey had a lead time of at least four months. It involved filling up a form, searching out a counter, standing in a queue for an entire day to get a ticket for a journey four months hence. And if the traveling party was more than four people, the process had to be repeated for each block of four people. To its credit, Indian Railways went through phases till its current digital state. It first computerized processes to speed up ticket issuance. This involved using computers to provide information on availability of tickets at a faster pace. It next digitized to reduce the time required to book tickets. In this phase, Indian Railways, made information readily available to the booking agents so that the agents could take decisions at the counter. The third phase involved a hybrid process of digitalization within a digitized framework. During this phase, a number of seats were blocked for reservation via the Internet. Thus, these blocked tickets could be processed concurrently rather than one at a time as in the hitherto digitized process. Finally, we now have the current process where the entire Indian Railway ticketing process is digital where multiple concurrent reservations can happen till the moment of the train departure and physical tickets are done away with.
While each stage of the process yields benefits, till full-blown digitalization the benefits are only incremental and impact only one or two elements of the process. When fully implemented, digitalization, has a quantum impact. Just consider the digitalization of Indian Railways, the benefits have been through the system. Consumer convenience is probably at the highest level possible. But, that is only the visible end of it. As an organization Indian Railways has gained in many ways – reductions in errors in ticketing, usage of paper, specialized stationery; deployment of its erstwhile agents in more fulfilling positions; load optimization of its trains leading to better usage of its infrastructure; preventing black marketing of tickets, etc – commercial, operational and institutional.
Digital is an integration of diverse systems
At its simplest, digitizing is the starting point of the digital framework. Without this essential step one cannot hope to become digital.
A digital framework comprises five essential components:
- Data capture or processes by which users of the framework can either create data by either providing it directly or it being created as a result of a user action.
- Autonomous decision support or a method by which the data thus provided can be processed and decisions made autonomously without humans.
- Concurrent processing of multiple systems or a technology infrastructure that allows extraordinarily large volumes of data to be captured and processed simultaneously.
- Automated fulfillment systems that complete transactions between the users of the framework based upon their inputs.
- Ability to transfer data and interactions across different, but appropriately enabled, device types.
Let us look at how these happen in the Indian Railway scenario described. Users, in this case passengers enter their journey data. Two levels of data are thus created, one the data the user has entered and the second data that will be used by the Indian Railways, for example, change in the availability of seats in the train for which the ticket is being booked by the user.
Following the data provided by the intending traveler, the second step of the process kicks into place which informs the passenger whether or not the request can be fulfilled; the cost and payment; the entire accounting process, etc. Most likely this is only the part of the decision support which is visible to the passenger. Invisible to the passenger would be processes that create the reservation charts, update the availability of seats in the train, optimization models, etc.
Obviously, the Indian Railways system does all this not one transaction at a time, but several tens of thousands such requests are handled simultaneously. The public facing transactions are managed through its web based portals, while systems that are internal to the Indian Railways are probably run through its private networks, even if using the Internet.
After all these, the process is completed by the fulfilment cycle by triggering a text message and an email to the passenger providing the PNR to enable travel with also an option to print the ticket. While in this case, the fulfilment can happen electronically, in other cases, such as say an eCommerce transaction, the process would require human intervention. In those cases the processes involving the exchange of information is usually digital.
Finally, today all these happen via computers, smart phones and basic mobile phones. It would not be surprising, if in future the Indian Railways has electronic reservation charts or seats with electronic panels where the passenger name is displayed!