Untying Digital Adaptation with Paul Boag

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Paul BoagPaul Boag is everywhere. I recently spoke to him about his new book “Digital Adaptation” and his related talk at Future of Web Design in London during early April.

SITEPOINT (Craig Buckler): Hey Paul. There are few people yet to encounter you on the web, but tell us a little about yourself and what you do?
PAUL: That question should be easy to answer but, over the years, I’ve started to find it much more difficult. It used to be simple — I was a web designer. However, it’s a long time since I have coded anything other than my own website. I keep my hand in but would be embarrassed to call myself a web designer these days.

I guess I am a business adviser or digital strategist. I help organizations do two things; adapt to the changes that digital have brought to the world and demonstrate how to use new tools to their full potential.

I achieve this either through working directly with organizations via my digital agency Headscape and by speaking and writing about the topic.

SITEPOINT: Blogs. Podcasts. Books. Videos. Conference talks. How do you find time to run a successful web agency?!
PAUL: It’s actually very simple — I don’’t! I am hugely involved in working with clients but I don’’t run Headscape. My co-founders Marcus Lillington and Chris Scott do that. I would be lost without them.

My role is ensuring our clients are making the most of the new digital economy. That means I have to stay on the cutting-edge of web innovation. The blogging, writing, podcasts etc. enable me to do that. I learn and then share what I have learned. It really is that simple. Sometimes I share with an individual client, other times with the whole community.

When it comes to the design and build of the digital assets we create for clients, I am probably the least qualified at Headscape. We have a fantastic team and I know when to keep out of their way.

SITEPOINT: Your FOWD talk is titled “Digital Adaptation: Time to Untie Your Hands”. Sounds cryptic! Tell us more…
PAUL: Oh dear, it wasn’t meant to sound cryptic! I need to improve my headline writing skills :)

Have you ever noticed how much we moan as web professionals? We moan about our clients, our bosses, our colleagues. We moan because they don’’t ‘understand’ digital. We are living through a period of huge change. Digital has turned the world upside down and while web professionals are at the front of that change, the rest of the world is slightly behind us.

The companies we work for are often pre-digital businesses. Our colleagues, clients and bosses use digital, but not to the level we do. Both businesses and people are shaped by the industrial age and are struggling to move into the digital age.

In my FOWD talk and the associated book I am looking at this transition period. I discuss the businesses, the people we work with and their need to adapt. But I argue we need to be catalysts of change rather than standing on the sidelines moaning that change isn’’t happening quickly enough.

Despite not having the authority or permission, we need to untie our hands and start pitching in to bring about transformation in the organizations with which we work.

SITEPOINT: The web is 25 years old. Why do you think companies are still struggling to adapt to digital business?
PAUL: 25 years sounds like a long time but, in historical terms, it’s not. The web of 25 years ago bears little resemblance to the web of today — at least not in terms of business or cultural impact.

It’s important to remember how ingrained the philosophy of the industrial economy is. Mass market, mass media, mass production have shaped everything from our nine to five workday to the very fact we have managers. Think how huge the shift from an agricultural to an industrial economy must have been. We are going through a comparably enormous transition.

Don’’t underestimate how big an impact digital is having. Many people view it as a tool, but it’s actually a cultural phenomena. It’s impacted every area of our lives from our social groups to our workplaces. Heck, even entire governments have collapsed under the power of social media!

Historically these kinds of gargantuan shifts in culture have taken a generation to adapt to. 25 years is not long.

SITEPOINT: Do web developers have the passion, power and persuasion skills to instigate cultural change in their organization?
PAUL: Some do. Some don’’t. Most have the passion. Few have the power and many have to learn persuasion skills. But if not us then who? Few other people grasp the enormity of what is happening around us. They think they can just bolt the web on to the existing business model by calling it a marketing tool. They don’’t realize it is decimating entire sectors. They don’’t consider that what occurred in the newspaper and music industry could happen in their sector.

Not having the power is always a good excuse for not rocking the boat. But it’s just an excuse. We can cause as much disruption as we are willing to cause. As Seth Godin likes to say: leaders are not picked, they step up.

What is the worst that can happen? Your boss fires you. But in the current economy there is no shortage of other companies willing to hire and listen to a passionate web professional with a plan for change. Your company might not appreciate the need for change, but many others do, even if they don’’t know what must be done.

SITEPOINT: Will business leaders listen and what can we do to make our voices heard?
PAUL: They will listen if we do two things: be persistent and speak in their language.

We like to rattle on about user needs, scalability, performance or technical acronyms. It means nothing to management. They care about two factors — business opportunities and business threats. If you can demonstrate how digital is threatening the business or provide a strong case for how digital can give a competitive advantage, then management will start to listen.

Notice I said ‘”start to listen”’. We give in too easily. We say something once, they ignore us and then we go back to complaining. Remember that they see web professionals as implementers. You implement their ideas. Changing that perception will not happen over night; it could take years of persistent education.

The question is: are you willing to put in the work?

SITEPOINT: Your new book “Digital Adaptation” will appeal to those in the web industry. But will it attract those who really need to read it — business managers?
PAUL: Absolutely not. No business manager will purchase it because they don’’t recognize the need. That’s where we come in. The book and associated resources are tools to help you persuade management. There is a two minute trailer to grab their attention, a twenty minute presentation that goes into a bit more depth and a manifesto outlining how change needs to happen. If these tools get them interested then maybe they will read the book.

When we launched the book, people asked me to sign their copy. However, few asked me to sign it to them. Almost all had bought the book for their managers or clients. This is not a book for you — it’s a book you buy for others.

SITEPOINT: Can the FOWD audience look forward to blatant book plugs and a selection of Marcus’s jokes? ;)
PAUL: Absolutely! I am chairing FOWD and yes I will absolutely be plugging the book to a painful degree. My aim is to be more annoying than your average sponsor slot!

If all of this sounds too terrible to bear, I can promise you one thing: It won’’t be any more annoying than Marcus’ jokes.

SITEPOINT: Are you looking forward to seeing any other speakers at FOWD?
PAUL: I am most excited to hear a talk on the rising star track by Westley Knight. He is picking up on some of the themes I cover in my book so I am interested to hear another perspective. He will be talking about how we as digital agencies also need to adapt to the new economy and how many of us are still using working practices left over from the industrial age.

SITEPOINT: Many thanks, Paul.

Paul Boag joins Rachel Nabors, Harry Roberts, Sarah Parmenter, and a cavalcade of amazing speakers at Future Of Web Design (FOWD) in London from April 7th-9th. Craig will also be there, but don’t let that put you off — a few tickets are still available!

Craig BucklerCraig Buckler
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Craig is a freelance UK web consultant who built his first page for IE2.0 in 1995. Since that time he's been advocating standards, accessibility, and best-practice HTML5 techniques. He's created enterprise specifications, websites and online applications for companies and organisations including the UK Parliament, the European Parliament, the Department of Energy & Climate Change, Microsoft, and more. He's written more than 1,000 articles for SitePoint and you can find him @craigbuckler.

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