By all indications, digital transformation is in the midst of an identity crisis. DT initiatives, organizations and even the general concept itself are struggling with the increasing recognition that digital transformation is not digital in nature. Add to that a significantly high failure rate for DT initiatives and the crisis becomes full-blown existential.
But perhaps the two crises are just different sides of the same coin. Maybe the confusion at the heart of the idea is directly related to the underwhelming results.
And the results are so dismal that even tech research firm Gartner, the high priests of DT, recently admitted that “digital transformation is nearing a period of intense scrutiny” and a “trough of disillusionment” is to be expected. Indeed, a significant number of digital transformation initiatives are deep in the ‘trough’ already. In a widely quoted Forbes interview, David Gale put the failure rate for DT projects at a whopping 84%.
Along with the growing disillusion, 2017 saw the explosion of claims that digital transformation is not about technology. The emerging storyline is that transformation does not naturally flow downstream from a digital source. Driven by tech marketing and high priest-type hype, many organizations have scrambled to acquire, implement and master new technologies at great cost with few transformative results to show for it. Ultimately, mastering the digital does not make you a master of transformation.Mastering the digital does not make you a master of transformation. Click To Tweet
The two terms are nevertheless wedded in more and more people’s minds. The search popularity of Digital Transformation hit its highest peak ever in November 2017.
While the data says nothing about the search motivation, high search numbers aren’t exactly a convincing sign of good general comprehension. Nor is it clear whether googlers are coming away with any better understanding despite all that searching.
Misnomer of the Century?
Part of the problem is that digital transformation is a misleading construction in English. Common usage dictates that the phrase should indicate what is transformed. For example, societal, personal and genetic transformations all describe significant changes to their preceding adjectives. A societal transformation is therefore a significant change to the way society functions; a genetic transformation describes an alteration of a cell’s genes and so on.
But unlike these other transformations, digital transformation does not describe a change to the essence of digital technologies. It is the transformation of just about everything else.Digital Transformation is a misnomer. DT does not describe a change to digital technologies. It is the transformation of just about everything else. Click To Tweet
So, even in the strictest linguistic sense, digital transformation is not digital. It is a misnomer. And indeed, the transformation brought on by the digital turn is societal, cultural, industrial, organizational, professional, personal etc. In short, it’s mind-bogglingly expansive in scope. Digital technology is at the root of significant upheaval in the world today, but that upheaval is happening on a multitude of other planes each with their own non-digital substance, history, logic and capabilities.Digital technology is at the root of significant upheaval in the world today, but that upheaval is happening on a multitude of other planes each with their own non-digital substance, history, logic and capabilities. Click To Tweet
This confusion is central to the problem of failing DT initiatives because managing a technological change is a very different animal than managing a cultural or personal one. There is however one element common to the various planes being transformed as the interplay with digital technology: the human being.
The People Turn
Most serious commentators are now arriving at variations on this same conclusion. A recent Microsoft report says digital transformation is also “a people exercise”, which they translate as a question of culture change; SAP claims that DT initiatives won’t see the expected return on investment until leaders realize “people come first and technologies come second”; Gartner says the key to getting through that trough of disillusionment “is all about people“, which they translate into the need for digital dexterity in terms of skills.
While these tech leaders are not exactly shouting their new conclusions from the rooftops, they nonetheless remain correct: transformation is carried out by and through people.While tech leaders are not exactly shouting their new conclusions from the rooftops, they nonetheless remain correct: transformation is carried out by and through people. Click To Tweet
This human turn has significant implications, not the least of which is that we can begin looking beyond the tech industry and IT departments for ideas, guidance and inspiration on how to do digital transformation. We can start quite simply by looking up from our screens and engaging with the people around us – those transformers par excellence.
This is not to say that it will be easy. Far from it.
To riff on poet and activist Jill Scott Heron’s poetic call for revolution nearly 50 years ago:
The transformation will not get likes, it isn’t cloud-based and doesn’t come with a dashboard updated in real-time.
The transformation will never have a stable API or a nice GUI, it won’t be found in a data set and there is no app for it.
The transformation will not be digitized, people, the transformation will be live…The transformation will not get likes, it isn’t cloud-based, it doesn't provide a positive user experience and there is no app for it. The transformation will not be digitized, people, the transformation will be live... Click To Tweet