I’m having a ‘Digital Transformation’ right now

Over a relatively short space of time, digital technology has contributed so much to homo sapiens’ long history of hyperbolic over-claim.

If, like me, you were introduced to “the information super-highway” via a dial-up connection you’ll know what I mean.

Since then, you may also have experienced the crushing disappointment of “surfing the internet” on a WAP-enabled phone?

You may still be waiting in for the “sharing economy” to turn up. It’s not coming.

Maybe you live in a “smart home” that’s not actually very clever?

Perhaps your 3D printer still hasn’t delivered that third industrial revolution you were promised?

Have you quantified yourself recently?

Well, you’re going to love ‘Digital Transformation’ — it’s the next level sh*t of self-delusional auto-exaggeration. Imagine someone grabbed hold of one end of the Gartner Hype Cycle and scraped all of the emerging technologies off it — like passing it through the teeth of a nit comb and catching all the hype in a blender. The viscid liquid that comes out at the end would be the elixir of purest technology hype. That’s ‘Digital Transformation’.

Taking the nit comb to Gartner’s Hype Cycle

Forgive me for being cynical. Honestly, I remain a total believer — and I know that we have to call it something but it is very clear that ‘Digital Transformation’ is a difficult, ambiguous, misleading and even potentially dangerous term and we have to get better at explaining it. Most of all, we need more detailed case studies and more relevant practical advice about how different types of businesses are doing it.

There are real problems with the way people use the term today — chief of which is the way it often sounds like ‘Digital Transformation’ is something you do *to* your business. Like, “We need to do a Digital Transformation…”.

The awful — yet important — truth is that ‘Digital Transformation’ is happening to your business whatever you do.

It’s happening every minute of every day. In fact it’s getting faster and faster. Oh — and it’s not just happening to your business in isolation, but to *everything*. Even if you chose to do nothing, digital’s still gonna get you, and transform you, for better or for worse. You don’t initiate it. It’s happening to you right now.

This is why I was moved to get some badges/pins made — let me know if you’d like me to send you a few, quantities permitting (I have some left over…).

The first 100 people to contact me with their addresses will receive a bunch of these badges/pins

It’s a misnomer

‘Digital Transformation’ is also a misnomer: it makes it sound like this is mainly a digital concern.

Wrong.

It’s not about digital or technology — it’s not really a technology problem at all. But it does have everything to do with business models, people, culture, leadership and change. It’s critical to understand this because we know that 70–80% or more of businesses plan to or are currently running digital transformation initiatives, but only 30% of those attempts will be successful*. One big reason so many are failing is because they’re getting this wrong.

It’s like magic

‘Digital Transformation’ is awesome packaging. It makes something really difficult sound much easier than it is, and therefore easier to sell. It wasn’t long ago that we used to call this stuff ‘Digital Disruption’ but that’s nowhere as easy to flog.

The way ‘Digital Transformation’ is often explained presents it simplistically and non-rationally. It often sounds like a one-time metamorphosis, as a journey or pathway to some kind of salvation. People invoke the phrase like a spell: simply utter “transformation sesame”.

I’m a bit of a history geek. My period is Early Modern European History — from the end of Renaissance to the start of the Industrial Revolution. I’m particularly interested in the way science, magic and religion change and develop throughout the period.

The Early Modern Period in Europe. Not much has changed.

‘Digital Transformation’ reminds me of the way people in the Early Modern period thought about alchemy. It’s the modern equivalent of believing it’s possible to transmute base metals into gold — a largely faith-based half-science. In this case we’re talking about turning legacy analogue businesses and organisations into shiny new full-stack businesses with digital at the core.

‘Digital Transformation’ — the new alchemy. Illustration by Sam Walker.

Incidentally, when you search for ‘Digital Transformation’ on Google you find lots of really magical images, like these:

Image search for ‘Digital Transformation’. But technology isn’t magic…

Where are the big cases?

You will also find lots of high-level pieces about why ‘Digital Transformation’ matters — but very little in the way of relevant, reference-able case studies and practical advice about how to do it.

Nonetheless, there are some case studies. Schibsted is a Norwegian media company that started a Digital Transformation initiative in 1995. The case was written up by Harvard Business Review. This case is very comprehensive, and the company are still providing updates, but on the other hand it’s very specific to the media industry and the study started in 1995, which feels like a million years ago.

We’ve been asking around and people we’ve spoken have also mentioned Burberry, Waitrose and Travelex. There are certainly tantalising fragments of these stories and others — frequently obscured by being written from the skewed perspective of software vendors and other sales-people. But there is a general lack of useful, practical cases. It’s a very different domain to, for example, digital product design or social media where there are lots of detailed cases applicable to nearly any situation or business.

The paucity of useful cases may also be because ‘Digital Transformation' is a multi-year undertaking. It might, for example, take 3–5 years to be in a position even to write a case study. Maybe we are simply too early?

It’s all about the ‘what’ and ‘why’; there’s nothing about ‘how’

We’ve tried to talk to as many people as possible from businesses of very different scale and category. One of the things that many of the executives and leaders we’ve spoken with have told us is that they really need simple, evidenced, compelling case studies to take into the boardroom, to show what’s involved. They don’t find them easily online.

There’s a lot of stuff about ‘what digital transformation is’ and ‘why it’s important’, but there’s very little about the ‘how’.

Framework hyper-inflation

A quick search online will turn up vast numbers of competing frameworks and diagrams of approaches for tackling digital transformation. As a result of the colossal commercial opportunity ‘Digital Transformation’ provides (there’s literally *trillions* of dollars on the table — for real…) a potent new ‘marketing chum’ of corporate panic, proprietary frameworks, software vendors and re-packaging has been thrown into the water to create the ultimate feeding frenzy. The ensuing confusion makes it even more difficult for clients to understand what to do.

It shouldn’t be surprising: everything in the whole world needs not only redesigning, but completely re-imagining. But significantly, ‘Digital Transformation' also offers a ‘One Ring to rule them all’ opportunity for vendors, agencies and consultants. Everyone wants some. The stakes have never been higher. The noise of all the new packaging is deafening. The hype — and panic — are off the scale.

We’re confused and scared

Code Computerlove in Manchester and the Institute of Directors recently released a survey of 1000 UK business leaders and senior directors that illustrates how confused people are:

  • 86% of those surveyed believed digital transformation was important, but only around half believe that they fully understand it
  • Only 35 per cent of senior directors believe their board has a strong grasp on the full potential of digital channels in their organisation, with too much conflicting information cited as the main issue for deciding where to allocate digital spend.

But, I don’t want this to be entirely negative.

The opportunity to redesign the way *everything* works is what lured many of us into the Internet in the first place. Now it’s actually coming true!

We need to remain excited about going beyond ‘just solving problems’. It’s not just about solving problems — it should be about unlocking completely new opportunities and value. Opportunities to do more, to create better versions of ourselves and our world, and ultimately to re-invent work.

It feels to me like the human side of ‘Digital Transformation’ could get forgotten in all the excitement — but that this is where all the real excitement resides.

It wouldn’t be totally incredible for that to happen — it’s a mistake we’ve made as a species many times before. I hope we can do better than that. I hope we can double down on the human centred bit this time — that feels like the real opportunity. We should be aiming for nothing less than Human Centred Digital Transformation.

It’s not hype to say that we have the opportunity right now to design a compassionate, human value system into the heart of all the new experiences, platforms, products and services we create in this exciting next wave of transformation.

Changing the employee experience, for example, is an aspect of business transformation that I’m particularly interested in at the moment. We’re lucky enough at Made by Many to be working with a very successful, visionary brand with a workforce of around 15,000 employees in the UK alone — most of whom work shifts and are under the age of 35. Their brief to us is to create a better kind of employee experience, a platform of services and a product that delivers lasting happiness (their words) — and to use the project and the platform as a catalyst for ‘digital transformation’. This is the kind of thing that’s getting us excited about the future.

I have a feeling that the most exciting design opportunities are shifting to the b2b/enterprise end of things. After all, this is undoubtedly where you can have the most impact. The frothy customer front end is where all the shiny stuff has been happening, but this company we’re working with understands that change from within, starting from the back — with their people and rooted in their culture — will be much more effective. I’m excited about working ‘inside/out’.

I contrast this with Burberry — which is often suggested as a ‘Digital Transformation’ winner. We were lucky enough to create Art of The Trench for Burberry back in 2009, and it changed the way luxury brands operate. It also kick-started Burberry’s amazing run of incredible smash hits.

Burberry set out — very deliberately — to be the “first fully digital luxury company”. And whilst they undoubtedly transformed many aspects of the customer experience, and obviously made changes in the back-end to support that, they weren’t able to pull them all the way through to transform the way everyone in the business worked. If anything, it could be argued that digital successes merely helped them grow a new silo… as it were.

I’m very happy to be working on a transformation project where ‘creating lasting happiness’ is the goal.

I’m particularly excited about the potential of using happiness as a metric. Happy employees are more productive, more trusting, more creative, more open to change — all the things you need to be able to transform business.

Now, in the old economy, businesses didn’t measure happiness. They couldn’t.

Tragically, they recorded stuff like people getting dragged into weaving looms and breaking the machines with their flailing bodies — but on the whole that’s as far as it went in terms of happiness-measuring. Workers were interchangeable resources, and if one broke you just got another one — it didn’t matter how happy they were. Even if you were a really caring boss, it was impossible to measure happiness in a continuous, one-to-one individual way in any case.

Today we think differently about work, or at least perhaps we are starting to. There is a growing expectation that work should satisfy our growth as people, and be enriching. People are joining the dots between happiness and productivity. Increasingly, we will start to measure success in terms of our broader social impact as businesses. This focus on purpose probably has to start from within.

To return to alchemy, it turns out that most alchemists weren’t into the physical transmutation of lead into gold — in fact this was a cypher for an internal journey of personal development. In that sense the most important change is one that happens within us — inside us as individuals, and inside the teams and businesses we work for.

The biggest change starts from within. Illustration by Sam Walker.

The magnum opus of digital transformation is an inner journey, which means that YOU are The Philosopher’s Stone.

You are The Philosopher’s Stone. Illustration by Sam Walker.