How the Rolodex was digitalized and what you should learn from it

There used to be a time, which I hope many of you have forgotten about, that the Rolodex ruled the desk of every manager around the world. Being in someone’s Rolodex and having important contacts in it, was a sign of accomplishment in the business world.

Since then, this analog way of storing contact information has moved into the museum as digital alternatives have completely taken over. The process of how the Rolodex was digitalized, provides important lessons we can put into practice today when digitalizing our business processes.

What first came to mind…

The first version of a digital version of a Rolodex I used was Outlook 95. It allowed to save contacts, along with the same information that people would put on their contact cards such as their address and telephone number. And of course their e-mail address, although almost no-one had an e-mail address back then.

At the time, I thought it was brilliant. Searching for contacts digitally was much easier than physically.

Looking back, being honest, it really wasn’t an improvement. I had to type over all the information on every card I got, instead of just sticking the card in the Rolodex. That lead to typos, which meant I had to call the company the person worked at to get the correct information.

Also, this process took way more time than simply adding a card to a Rolodex. And while we’re being honest … searching digitally was cool, but back then not really much faster than the Rolodex…

Digitalizing analog processes

The problem with digitalizing a process in a straigh-forward way, like the example of the contacts in Outlook versus the Rolodex, usually leads to less efficient processes. There are inherent differences between analog processes and digital processes. These differences can either be good or bad, depending on how you utilize them.

Analog Digital
Paper is hard to copy Digital data is easy to copy
Easy to secure Hard to secure
Hard to access data Easy to access data
Hard to scale up Easy to scale up
Easy to change process Hard to change process
Hard to ensure compliance Easy to ensure compliance

Let’s take a quick look at some of the aspects and how they can be used in a good way and a bad way. For example, paper is hard to copy. This can be an obvious weakness when we are trying to provide information on a contract to a different location of the company for example. Digital information can easily be copied, for example simply by mailing the document to a person that works at the other location.

But you can also leverage this aspect of a paper process. Things being hard to copy, means they are harder to steal or leak for example. A signed physical document is much harder to falsify than its digital equivalent. Similar arguments can be made for accessibility and security.

Even compliance being hard can be a positive. Paper processes are notoriously hard to comply with simply because there is not a real restriction on executing the process. No matter how specific your paper form is, someone can scribble something extra on the paper or fill out a field completely incorrectly.

For digital processes, these steps can be made in such a way that only the exactly correct information can be entered. In many cases this is a positive, but there are cases where this leads to edge cases not being possible. When the process is very strict, it is easy to comply with, but it loses flexibility.

What today’s digitalized Rolodex looks like

Today’s version of the Rolodex completely leverages the advantages that can be achieved by going digital. However, it also has some weaknesses that come along with going digital. Weighing the pros and cons though, I would say that LinkedIn is a huge improvement over the analog Rolodex. But it works in a completely different way.

LinkedIn leverages the fact that digital information can easily be accessed and copied. Instead of relying on every person to maintain their own copy of someone’s data, LinkedIn simply allows you to link to the data of a person.

This means that when the person’s phone number or address changes, it is effectively copied into your contact list. Much easier than the digital Rolodex example I gave earlier.

Because LinkedIn is digital, it is very easily accessible. This means I can access my digital Rolodex from home, work, while on the road, and via any device that I am using at that particular moment.

Accessibility is one of the most powerful aspects of digital processes. But it becomes even more powerful when combined with the ease of copying data, as the LinkedIn example shows us.

A big downside of digital, is that it can be hacked. People can steal your password, or they can hack into the system (after all, it’s easily accessible), and get your personal data out of it. This is a big downside, admittedly. That is why we are always stressing security so much when considering digitalizing processes. And security is hard for businesses, as witnessed by the many data leaks we are confronted with every week.

Digital is better

All things considered though, I wouldn’t want to go back to my old Rolodex. LinkedIn has many benefits added to my old Rolodex that were simply impossible in the analog age. Perhaps you found this article through LinkedIn because I or someone else shared it. Or you found a new employer, business partner or customer through your 2nd line or 3rd line connections.

These are all advantages that were impossible before the Rolodex went digital in the right way. So when it comes to digital processes, always remember to leverage the correct aspects of digital to make sure your new process blows the old one out of the water!

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