Digital footprints

Technology development can often outpace an organisation’s ability to harness its opportunities. The stage is set for the digital director.


The global technology research and advisory firm Forrester faced a dilemma of unknown proportions back in August 2009 when one of its key strategists, Jeremiah Owyang, left the company for pastures new. While movement of people is a natural and regular occurrence for a business, when Owyang left Forrester he took with him his digital identity.

During his employment with Forrester, Owyang had generated and cultivated extensive social media connections. The long tail effect of his personal blog alone was massive as he had worked as a very thorough and systematic aggregator. Forrester, like most major companies back in 2009, was seemingly unaware of the legacy impact of such a departure on the connectivity with their clients and business interests.

Fast forward to 2012 and it remains the case that many international organisations are still unsure how best to leverage and secure the personal digital footprints of their employees. Many aspects of an employee’s digital footprint originate from their employment connections and may have reference to, and have been generated in, their working environment.

While much has been said in the last decade about carbon footprints, the next decade is likely to see increasing interest in digital footprint identity and the complex implications of ownership.

A digital footprint refers to the interactions linked to an identity (individual, team, group or corporate) across a wide range of digital applications from the internet, including the dynamic flow of information through social activity streams and mobile phone connectivity. Complexity is added by the increased preference of individuals in many organisations to use their own devices for work, subjecting ownership of socially related business activity and connections to debate.

An individual’s digital footprint is measured by the extent of their online activity. Work-based connections generated via social media remain long after an individual leaves a company. Post-employment, while they may not directly approach individuals (to do so may contravene their contract of employment), people will remain visible, connected and accessible via social media connections.

Ownership of a company’s digital footprint is predominately focused within the remit of the CIO function, linking it to technological connectivity. However, this is a rapidly evolving arena where aspects of the digital footprint also encompass areas such as marketing and sales channels, in addition to internal communications. With such a broad spectrum of business-related implications, there is a new remit arising which may transcend the experience of incumbent individuals and organisational expertise.

The concept of ‘digital directors’ is emerging as organisations start to recognise the full impact of a robust, dynamic flow of information across business interests and through social activity streams. These individuals will act in the capacity of ‘intrepreneur’, harnessing CIO and wider corporate knowledge with market dynamics to deliver business advantage (at a corporate and individual level), while managing internal and external digital risks.

Digital directors may be sourced from the CIO community, online trading organisations with a track record of success, social media organisations or perhaps digital marketing agencies. As with emerging market areas, investment is required at the front-end of experience and firms should anticipate a three to five year window for strategic delivery. The best strategy may be to recruit two or three directors with variable remits and focus which will maximise early returns and allow the opportunity for the prime contender to emerge within an 18 month window.

This is pioneering territory where new language needs to be created that balances:

•                the support and empowerment of the business to deliver its remit;

•                the support and empowerment of employees to deliver their remit;

•                monitoring content to ensure corporate values and strategies are upheld; and

•                securing the knowledge-based connections created throughout the work environment for corporate benefit.

Digital directors will be required to “own” the digital agenda and be accountable for the organisation’s digital identity (both corporate and individual). Their key expertise will be to assuage institutional fear of loss of control, transitioning this through culture change dynamics to create an enabled, empowered workforce who are the company’s daily ambassadors.

As witnessed all too regularly, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and evolving media such as Pinterest and Google+, demand immediate attention, often resulting in inappropriate responses potentially ‘going viral’. These cause significant brand management challenges, particularly where negative social media activities adversely affect trading.

Successful digital directors will have ‘digitally safe’ and experienced hands, being able to make things happen quickly and accurately for an organisation, aligning their agenda and environment and stretching their market reach. These individuals will be smart, emotionally intelligent and intuitive, and be able to articulate a vision, harness internal cooperation and knowledge while delivering excellence in digital credibility. Digital directors will articulate a compelling story of digital evolution, cross-cultural transitions and territorial capture. The best will create connections on an individual level, even in the midst of volume traffic.

The stakes are high and errors will be made. However, robust digital connectivity should ensure the construction of a ‘grid-safe’ environment to calibrate risks, ensuring speed and appropriateness of response to negative impacts.

The digital reach of employees such as Owyang are, for many organisations, still undervalued but (hopefully) will not remain so for much longer. Those who know how to combine what exists now with a vision for the future position of a company on the digital highway, will soon be increasingly in demand.

The pace of technology development continues to increase rapidly, often outpacing an organisation’s ability to harness opportunities. In the coming years, it is likely that companies will seek and promote digital directors to hold and apply a vision to leverage capacity and opportunity, and to stay ahead of the competition. This is definitely an era where combining a series of skill sets in a new and innovative way is a valuable investment.