Most trends are destined for a quick death. None more so than snowclones, popular rhetorical clichés that are customizable for use across multiple settings. Examples include any variant of “X is the new Y”, “the mother of all X”, and possibly the most belabored trope of them all, “Millennials are killing X”. At its peak in 2017, it seemed nothing escaped the murderous clutches of avocado toast-eating 20- and 30-somethings.
How does a snowclone die? When it becomes so overused that it devolves into a punchline for how out of touch pundits are, or simply loses all meaning and novelty it once had.
In the tech industry, the snowclone ‘X is the Uber of Y’ reached its zenith in 2015, but quickly fell out of favor when investors and journalists implored startups to drop the comparison and let the originality of their ideas stand on their own. That the company was plagued by a deluge of legal and ethical scandals didn’t help, either.
But against all odds, one particular snowclone keeps extending its use-by date: “How digital has changed X”, where ‘X’ is every imaginable industry and sector. According to Google Trends, interest in digital transformation has been growing year on year. A number of factors could explain its longevity (not least because the word ‘digital’ is so broad that it’s often used interchangeably with any form of technology), but ultimately it’s down to the fact that digital has changed, and continues to change, everything.
The main thrust of the mammoth digital transformation industry has been to help organizations integrate technology into their processes and systems in order to become more competitive and efficient, better engage with customers and empower employees. It’s certainly hard to contradict the seismic impact of mobile, social, artificial intelligence, cloud, big data, and other ‘digital transformation’ technologies on every realm of human activity.
Indeed, it’s perhaps because of the extent to which technology has infiltrated fundamental aspects of our lives that ‘digital transformation’ as a conceptual tool is already fast outliving its usefulness.
The declining utility of the word ‘digital’
Recall the saying, “When everyone is special, no one is”. A snowclone version of it increasingly holds true: “When everything is digital, nothing is.”
Few businesses can effectively deliver or market products and services without the support of some form of technology, and it has long made little sense to delineate between a company’s ‘digital’ or ‘non-digital’ operations. McDonalds, with their touch-screen kiosks and algorithmically driven decision logic technology, is just as much of a ‘digital’ company as Tesla or Samsung. You’d be hard-pressed to find a print newspaper that doesn’t also rely on ‘digital’ mediums to reach its readers. The word ‘digital’ has become more and more anachronistic in a world where technology is integrated into the very fabric of life and work.
From a utility perspective, demarcating ‘digital’ activities from the ‘non-digital’ creates false silos and unnecessarily constrains the diverse ways in which technology can be used to support improvements across the board. ‘Digital’ is also never just one thing. It encompasses a complex stew of media, software, hardware, distribution channels, platforms and devices. Success relies more on choosing the right mix of channels and technologies for a certain purpose, product or customer segment, and thinking about how each can reinforce the other.
That the presence of technology itself is insufficient to achieve better outcomes should further compel us to abandon a singular focus on ‘digital transformation’. For instance, a recent McKinsey Global Survey found that a mere 16 percent of organizations felt their digital transformation efforts improved long-term performance. Why? Because digital transformation that fails to properly consider how different platforms, media, and devices impact (or don’t impact) human behavior results in no transformation at all.
Thus while ‘digital transformation’ might still be an adequate umbrella term for describing broader shifts in mindset around how business is done, we need a new paradigm that better captures the constantly evolving nexus between humans and technology, arguably the most critical factor in effecting real change.
From the ‘digital’ to the ‘human’
So where to from here, if ‘digital’ as a term is being rendered impractical, and ‘digital transformation’ as a process too often neglects the human element?
One answer is to redirect focus from the ‘digital’ to the ‘human’ by embracing Human Transformation Technology (HTT) — an emerging category of technology that draws from the vast body of cognitive, psychological, physiological and social research, and integrates it into the solution design process in order to drive sustained learning or behavior change outcomes.
HTT is distinguished by a hyper-awareness of the reality that transformation efforts don’t occur in a vacuum. When it comes to actualizing change, it recognizes that technological tools will only be effective insofar as they are deliberately attuned to the way specific segments of people operate, think and feel in specific situations. As the $152 billion edtech industry has had to contend with, for example, more tech doesn’t necessarily enhance learning. A human transformation approach addresses this by advocating for solutions that are consistent with how our brains retain information, taps into the psychology of social learning, or facilitates instructional scaffolding.
A focus on human transformation can also help highlight areas where technology is being underused as a tool to help people adopt change. Take insurance companies, whose performance is inextricably tied to consumer behaviors. While machine learning and other data-driven technologies have helped automate claims and assess risk more accurately, the next frontier lies in harnessing them to motivate and prompt healthier lifestyle choices or safer driving. In education, health, finance, sustainability, human services, or any other area, there is huge scope to more effectively address uniquely human issues of behavior and performance with Human Transformation Technology.
Human, and humane, transformation
For some, the phrase ‘human transformation’ might stir up discomforting images of unscrupulous companies weaponizing behavior change techniques at scale for self-interested, nefarious purposes. And they would be right to be concerned. We must acknowledge there are real issues to confront about the extent to which we allow others to track our health, attitudes and activities, as well as the public and private measures we should take to protect data privacy and data rights (that’s another article for another day).
At the same time, it’s prudent to recognize that technology is an ambivalent dimension of society that can cut both ways — like law, education, or money, it is the actors involved in technology, their motives, resources and participation in social debates that determine what it is, and what it will become.
Given that technology is neither intrinsically good nor bad, one final advantage a Human Transformation approach offers is the way in which it puts the people building something, why they’re building it and who they’re building it for front and center of the development process. By explicitly taking into account how technological design and development impacts people’s behaviors, attitudes, emotions and beliefs, HTT is that much better positioned to ensure technology respects and supports humans, rather than extracts from and exploits them.
Cogniss Magazine is published by Cogniss, a platform for building Human Transformation apps — apps that use applied neuroscience and psychology to drive better learning, health and behavior change outcomes.