Analog vs Digital

    by: Keith Willeford, PMI Houston Content Writer

    I have found myself pondering retro technologies lately.  In a country where digital technology is ubiquitous and I spent most of my waking hours staring at an electronic screen, it is refreshing to sometimes ponder older technologies.  Analog technologies, if you will.  Note: It is not a perfect dichotomy.  Things that are not digital are not necessarily analog, and vice versa. 

    Digital. Adjective.  dig·i·tal. ?di-j?-t?l. 4: composed of data in the form of especially binary digits • digital images/photos • a digital readout • a digital broadcast [=a broadcast employing digital communications signals] – compare analog

    Analog. Adjective. an·a·log.  ?a-n?-?l?g, -?läg.  2 a: of, relating to, or being a mechanism in which data is represented by continuously variable physical quantities; b: of or relating to an analog computer; c: being a timepiece having an hour and minute hands • an analog watch

    Maybe the word analog just appeals to my inner hipster.  Maybe that’s why I wear one of these. My interest in older technology goes back to my brief time as an armed forces communications officer. 

    In some ways, the military has some pretty advanced technology (especially in the Air Force and Navy). 

    In other ways, military equipment lags behind what you could get off-the-shelf at your local outdoor store (especially in the ground forces). 

    The reason for this is the underlying specification for equipment.  Durability, ruggedness, and weather resistance are sometimes more important to the Army or Marine Corps than size, weight, or comfort. 

    A good example of an analog signal is the human voice, carried over a series of continuous waves.  A good example of a digital signal is whatever it is in the computer translating my keystrokes into these words.  Our digital technologies definitely make us more efficient.

    Can you imagine going back to Mad Men days, where a room full of secretaries had to pound out memos on typewriters?  Now we have word processors on our desks and communicate across the globe nearly instantly.  So why do we need older tech?  Why do we need analog?

    Sometimes the older, the analog, is more reliable.  Talking to someone for five minutes can often get across a complicated point.  Spending an hour drafting a complicated email is likely to result in confusion (especially because tone and emphasis cannot be inferred appropriately). 

    The other great thing about an analog signal is the error resistance.  Because an analog signal is continuous, parts of the conversation can be lost or garbled without affecting the overall transmission of the message. 

    Back in the day, your poor broadcast tv reception would result in a snowy screen – but you could still see, hear, and understand what was going on.  With a purely digital signal, losing too many 1s or 0s can result in much of the message being lost.  If your satellite tv feed is distorted, the image may be too pixelated to make out or completely frozen.  And, sometimes the older technology is just a good fallback plan.  What happens if you lose your GPS signal when you’re in the middle of nowhere?  Hopefully, you know how to use a map and a compass.

    Side note: the above examples are the simplest I can come up with.  It blew my mind to realize that you can encode analog information on a digital signal, and digital information on an analog signal (that’s how the radio receiver in your car can tell you the name of the song and artist).  We will leave all that for another conversation.

    The point: Am I making the correct decisions with the project tools at my disposal?  It is easy to send out many emails a day.  But how effective are my emails, mixed in with the dozens of other emails we all receive daily?  It is more difficult to schedule and run well-disciplined meetings.  It is difficult to simply practice “management by walking around.”

    On the other hand, there are some cases in which digital tools are an enormous force multiplier.  Through the miracle of web conferencing, I can have effective meetings with people on the other side of the planet – communicating with both electronic documents as well as good old analog voice.

    I once got to take an off-road driving course.  The mantra of the driving school was “slow as possible, fast as necessary.”  The reason for this was the need to preserve equipment.  The last thing you want when you are miles from assistance is to needlessly break your own gear.  (Side note: “Slow as possible, fast as necessary” is pretty much how I drive in my daily life.  This vexes my wife who, as a native Houstonian, believes fast is necessary.) I bring this up because I have been pondering what would happen if I took an “analog as possible, digital as necessary” approach to my projects.

    I suspect that I would be more thoughtful about the tools employed, based on the requirements of the job.  Perhaps a physical Kanban board really would be the most effective means to communicate among my project team.  Or, if my team is geographically dispersed, maybe we need to go digital and use an electronic one. 

    And, I wonder if using some analog tools can make my project resilient in the event we lose electricity or internet.  Your thoughts, please.  Bear in mind, I had to condense this to 900 words.  So, feel free to be as civil as possible, as rude as necessary.