It’s not a transformation, it’s an update

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Billy MacInnes asks if the term 'digital transformation' is a phase or a phrase?



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11 February 2021 | 0

Did you know that if you type the words ‘digital transformation’ into Google, you get 508 million search results? That’s more than Kanye West, Kim Kardashian, Kylie Jenner and Vladimir Putin combined (483 million). And it’s only 7 million less than President Biden.

If you consider that the phrase is almost exclusively confined to the IT and business domains – you don’t hear it being bandied around many kitchens for example – that’s an awful lot of results.

And yet, for such a widely used term, the meaning can be hard to pin down. Wikipedia makes a decent attempt, describing digital transformation as “the adoption of digital technology to transform services or businesses, through replacing non-digital or manual processes with digital processes or replacing older digital technology with newer digital technology”.




Let’s look at the last part of that definition, namely “replacing non-digital or manual processes with digital processes or replacing older digital technology with newer digital technology”. I don’t mean to be blunt but what’s transformative about that?

People have been selling IT on that basis for years. In fact, that’s pretty much what IT has been doing for years, replacing manual or non-digital processes with digital processes.

So it doesn’t really address the main issue. We’re all comfortable with ‘digital’, everyone knows what that means. But ‘transformation’, that’s different. For example, there’s a huge difference between transforming a room by painting the walls a different colour and having a transformative experience that changes your entire perspective on life.

The problem is, we all know that when people in IT use the word ‘transformation’ they’re not talking about something as minor as the equivalent of changing the colour of your walls. They’re talking much much bigger. It’s just that no one really knows how big.

For example, what does it take to ‘transform’ a service or business with digital technology?

One answer could be from looking at what people define as a successful digital transformation. Type ‘digital transformation success stories’ into Google and you get around 104 million results. That’s a lot of results.

Just a phase

Looking at some of the examples of digital transformation, I’m brought back to a comment made during a briefing I had with SolarWinds MSP president John Pagliuca earlier this month.

In the course of the briefing, Pagliuca described digital transformation as “a dumb phrase”, arguing that “digital evolution” was much more suitable. I tend to agree.

In pretty much all cases of digital transformation, businesses and services are being improved by adopting newer technologies. In other words, they are evolving as the technology evolves. Does that technology transform the business? It’s debatable.

There’s an expectation associated with transformation, the impression that it means something more than just plain boring old evolution. The latter suggests something that occurs naturally over a period of time but transformation seems like something much more dramatic. To put it in evolutionary terms, it’s like jumping from primates to homo sapiens with nothing in-between.

From a channel perspective, if you’re talking to customers, pitching digital transformation seems much harder for them to grasp than talking about a digital evolution.

In the end, your customer is trying to improve the business, service or process with better use of technology. In some ways, it would be much easier for them to understand it if it wasn’t presented as such an amazing transformative experience.

They would probably feel a lot more comfortable about embarking on a project if they saw it as an evolution and improvement on what they already have. The risk of disappointment would be a lot lower as well. No one likes an industry that over-promises and under-delivers. As a proposition, digital transformation seems guilty of both.

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