Are we there yet? Why it's time to consign digital transformation to history

In 2019, digital transformation needs to be buried deep. It’s a buzz word that’s had it’s day. It’s a concept that’s not delivered. It’s so worn out and overused that people roll their eyes at the very mention of it these days. It’s a redundant phrase that’s stuffed into wider and wider contexts without adding any value.
If you cannot clearly define what something is, then you’re clearly not ready to do it and don’t actually understand it very well. Yet digital transformation – as overexposed and overanalysed as it is – remains elusive and vague, a marketing concept not anything tangible that we can say ‘yes that’s what it is’.
Too often, it provides a respectable veneer of innovation where there is none. It’s like the score you get at school that gives you an A for effort but a D for attainment. It can deliver tools, but without ideas and strategy it is doomed to failure.
For as long as I can remember we’ve been transforming something. We used to conduct large-scale, expensive and complex IT transformations. They got a bad name and went out of fashion. Some bright spark then had a great idea. Let’s rebrand such a programme as digital, rather than IT, transformation, and then we can carry on. Of course there needed to be reasoning as to why digital transformation was somehow different from what had gone before. So we isolated a single core idea – digital transformation was to be about the customer and improving our business outcomes as a result of better meeting the needs of that customer. This was contrasted to earlier IT-led transformations, which focused on tools rather than on business transformation.
Despite this, however, many transformations are still organisation-centric affairs rather than customer-centric business transformations.
As 2018 drew to a close I was struck by how many articles, white papers and industry research focus on digital transformation, and how dire the statistics have become. It doesn’t matter who you read or who you believe, the fact is that according to all measures by all industry commentators, digital transformations are failing. They go over budget, over time, or fail to deliver the tools a business needs or the experiences its customers want.
In truth, I’m somewhat bored reading all of this, because major IT projects usually fail in some aspect or another and this is not really news. (see Most digital transformation projects fail – so what!)
That’s why it’s time to declare digital transformation dead. It is the Emperor’s New Clothes of business. If the customers cannot see and admire the difference then it is a vanity project that shareholders should be suspicious of, rather than tolerant of.
New technology (which is what digital transformation claims to deliver) is often adopted via a process of diffusion within an organisation – a trickle-up effect. It is not planned strategically and delivered via complex methodologies. In fact, some of the most effective technology adoption is where people just start using a technology because it makes their working lives easier. Big IT is suspicious of this democratisation, wanting to control what’s going on like it did back in the good ol’ days. But the genie is out of the bottle. Workers are now not only the experts in their working lives, but easily able to consume technology that they choose. Increasingly, they won’t work in the mandated way or with the tools provided, preferring to bring their own (BYOD, BYOA, BYON, BYOS) or to work more informally – something that presents considerable challenges but has become a fact of business life.
Meanwhile true digital businesses have just got on with it. Without any fanfare. Both native and transformed traditional businesses are already benefitting from new digital business models and continuing to evolve and refine their offering as new technologies become available. Instead of focusing solely on businesses trying to ‘become digital’ (and more often than not failing) and the process they adopt (so-called digital transformation), we should instead be focusing more firmly on digital business itself.
In 2015 you could declare you were digitally transforming and the market would be impressed and overlook the huge sums you were spending to modernise your infrastructure. Or rather take the attitude that if it was expensive it had to be good, and you had to be important. Nowadays to still be transforming reveals a business that is behind the times and likely to be struggling. The large sums involved look like money frittered away, and reveal a lack of ongoing, incremental investment or a sudden (risky) shift in strategy.
Instead of boasting about transformation, enterprises should be hiding their heads in shame and answering hard questions on why they haven’t already delivered a digital business for their shareholders and the resulting uplift in revenues and profits. Such shareholders should be asking ‘isn’t it normal to refresh technology constantly?’
Neither should we be bamboozled by businesses claiming to be digital that are not. A digital business is not a collection of IoT, AI, Cloud Computing, 5G, Social Technology, or any other trendy tech. All of these things may help a business deliver as a digital business, but a digital business itself is (among other things) one that is:

  • integrated internally, with no boundaries or silos to prevent efficient operation or collaboration
  • customer centric, with the evolving needs and behaviours of customers placed firmly at the centre of everything the business does
  • collaborative – internally as well as with partners, distributed workforces and customers
  • profitable – if becoming a digital business does not improve business outcomes then it has been a vanity project. Becoming a digital business should result in an uplift in results and a new lease of life for the business
  • innovative – digital businesses must continually innovate to stay relevant in an ever-changing market. Continual change is a matter of uncertainty, and businesses must be able to adapt, change and innovate effectively, quickly and cost-effectively
  • focused on its employees – digital businesses understand the importance of their valuable employees in delivering against their customer and business goals. They understand the difference between good and bad automation and they provide the tools employees need to be effective, make their lives easier and more enjoyable, and put people where they make the most difference
  • agile – able to deliver and make decisions quickly and able to respond to changes in the market.

Life is not about becoming. It’s about being.
It’s about being a better person and being happier as a result of being the person you want to be. It’s about looking and feeling good in each moment. Not about the diet, the workout, the meditation or the make-over.
Digital business is about being a better business. The becoming – the transformation – is just the means to the end. A digital business is one that is ‘beach ready’ – toned, fit and looking good.
The opportunity for businesses to transform themselves by dieting, working out, meditating (on their data) or making themselves over has gone. We’re now at that red carpet moment where they need to put up or shut up. Non-participation simply knocks you off the A list. They need to show up, put their best foot forward and impress their customers. Otherwise the number of well-known failures will continue to accelerate.