In the 1980s, IT departments, likely called Data Processing back then, pioneered digital transformation. Manual processes, such as tracking inventory and work orders on cards or keeping customer records, moved from physical paper in bins or drawers to a computer. The impetus was on storing data and calculation. Making innovative use of the data wasn’t a motivation yet. The primary goal was to make manual tasks, like knowing when to reorder components, faster and more accurate.
Computers challenged decades-old processes, but they didn’t threaten jobs. In fact, looking to even small Data Processing departments—planners and salespeople, clerks and managers—alike would perceive employment growth. Young people, often with little industry experience, brought new skills into the organization. They taught the organization how to use computers and the organization taught them about healthcare, advertising, manufacturing, mining, or any other industries where the two groups found themselves crafting alliances.
The roots of digital transformation start in these unfamiliar alliances between technology staff and the functions and lines of business within every organization.
It wasn’t long before most numerical data that once filled rooms full of file cabinets, at least the active data, was stored on a computer. Over the next few years, computers became more powerful, gained more storage, and eventually started capturing textural and image data in meaningful ways.
But as the more sophisticated computers arrived, eventually being joined by the democratizing influence of the personal computer, the initial assumptions about computers started to look archaic. Centralized IT and its mainframes gave way to many other models.
And as the business use of computing matured, so too did the approach to the development and deployment of software. Methodologies, languages, and deployment models emerged, succeeded, retired—and were replaced.
I don’t want to go into an entire history of computing, but it is important to note that digital transformation, is not new. Digital transformation happened the first time a computer was injected into an existing process. Digital transformation started small, but it now underpins all of IT. In many ways, digital transformation is what agriculture is to farming.
Where farming can be small and intimate, even if it uses sophisticated tools, agriculture is an interconnected ecosystem that leverages science in the cultivation of land for crops and livestock, for maintaining the readiness of the land, and the selling of products at scale. The transformation of farming into agriculture started over 100,000 years ago, and it continues to evolve. Farming produces food for people to eat. Agriculture transformed civilization. Digital transformation, while only several decades old, is the framework in which business exists: not a project, not a budget item, not a set of technologies or capabilities, or something you hire out. Digital transformation is the job.
Digital transformation is the ongoing interplay between technology capabilities and options, and business needs. Each business must look at the landscape of current technologies, practices and capabilities and ask what will best help it overcome its strategic challenges, aid in its navigation of the market, make it attractive to talent and investors, open its goods and services to new markets, and help it manage costs.
Business strategy and vision state what an organization intends to do and how it intends to do it. Digital transformation acts as the roiling ocean of possible approaches to achieve those goals.
In the opening paragraphs of this post, I outlined a few transformations in early data processing. There is no indication of stability in the current approaches to the use of digital technology in business. Client-Sever gave way to the Cloud. The Cloud is unlikely the penultimate expression of computing for business—and even if it is, the computers, and the languages used to represent algorithms and processes, will continue to change. Digital transformation is a kaleidoscope that transforms with each twist. Each rearrangement creates a new pattern that combines legacy with emergent technologies and practices.
Digital transformation is persistent. It may have a roadmap, but the roadmap lives in a world of reinvention—and like actual roadmaps, it must reflect changes in the landscape. Old roads disappear, new roads arrive, public transit lines overlay and intersect, small streets become large thoroughfares.
The role of IT, and of the Chief Information Officers (CIOs) who lead them, is not to perform digital transformation, but to lead organizations through it, to navigate transformations on the way to the next state. Digital transformation encompasses dozens of concepts and hundreds of technologies. Because of that complexity, the most important skill for IT today may be paying attention: paying attention to what internal customers need, what external customers want, and what tools exist to meet those needs. Attention becomes the primary expertise. Lose focus and the ever-churning world of business and technology, government and consumers, makes knowledge obsolete at an ever-faster pace.
Being data-driven, and using analytics—those are table stakes now. Without tools to help you pay attention, you can’t pay attention well enough. The same goes for collaboration technology. Networks pay better attention than individuals. Scatter and frustrate the network across a plethora of collaboration tools, and attention also scatters.
As I reflect on digital transformation, I share 4 to-dos that should never leave your to-do list.
4 To-Dos of Digital Transformation
- Pay attention. You don’t need to embrace every new idea or technology immediately, but you need to monitor for relevancy. Paying attention includes paying attention to employees, partners, customers, and other stakeholders. What do they need? How are they reacting to change? How can you make their experiences better?
Pay attention to when ideas or technologies move from concept to inflection—when they matter in a big way. If you paid attention as they evolved, the organization is already prepared to act. Keep your eye on the ball though as anticipated use will usually prove different than actual use. Inflection points drive waves of innovation and disruption. Riding those waves is the digital transformation of the moment. Paying attention, seeing the waves as they form, becomes a mission-critical skill.
2. Embrace uncertainty. Those who only master the present will become extinct faster than those who navigate the present and anticipate the future. The only way to anticipate the future is to embrace uncertainty.
It is imperative that you put a name on what you don’t know as soon as you can, because only then can you really pay attention to it. Consider the metaverse as a digital transformation topic. Virtual reality (VR) was joined by augmented reality (AR). The two blurred into XR or mixed reality. And then Facebook changed its name to Meta and announced the advent of the metaverse (which, BTW, first debuted as an idea in Neal Stephenson’s science fiction novel Snow Crash.) The metaverse deserves attention now, as did VR, AR, and XR before it. Those still paying attention to isolated technologies have abandoned currency and context.
3. Be willing to let go. People become attached to the things they create, the things they invest in. That attachment creates an obstacle to agility. If something better comes along, learn about it, and if it is better, use it. If an idea proves wrong, abandon it. Many technology transition costs have been reduced with the digitization of data. Data moves into a new, more sophisticated container. If the new container is better, one of the attributes of improvement will be intuitive use within its domain. The cost of migration should not be an impediment to the next necessary transformation.
Be it a customer relationship management (CRM) platform or a computer-aided design (CAD) system, the newer system should offer enhanced alignment with the needs of the users, making it easier to adopt and use. Keep in mind that every new system is tomorrow’s legacy system. That will help you stay emotionally detached from your tools.
4. Become strategic. Many CIOs focus on making IT work. They focus on tactics, incremental improvements, cost savings, and compliance-as-strategy. Avoid the trap of just doing a good day’s work by forcing yourself to think strategically about the way technology and associated processes and practices can help the business achieve its goals. Don’t wait for the line of business owners or business functions to give you a list of specifications. Only CIOs can see across the entirety of the business through the technology lens, and only IT has the remit to monitor—to pay attention—to developments that may transform a function or business.
Being strategic means not only seeing but acting—being a leader. Start the transformation conversation. Don’t wait for it to come to you.
A Final Note on Digital Transformation
Merriam-Webster.com takes a convoluted path to the definition of transformation by saying it means “an act, process, or instance of transforming or being transformed.” Transformation is transitory. It is not an end state but a waypoint between.
In many ways, the phrase digital transformation does a disservice. It offers little guidance, leaving vast narratives for consultants to fill with frameworks and workshops that seek to define a roadmap to some arbitrary endpoint.
Digital transformation is an ongoing narrative of change. The complex social, technological, economic, environmental, and political factors that frame our lives and our work interplay to create opportunities and constraints.
Only if our digital infrastructure devolves into a technologically void dystopia will digital transformation end. Such a cessation of progress will be technology’s final transformation. Although not without historical precedent, such a dystopia is highly unlikely over the next several decades. That means that digital transformation will remain foundational to everything that IT undertakes. The projects on today’s deployment Kanban board will reappear again in the future as systems and features to replace.
Unlike the transformation of an expression in mathematics, digital transformation in business has no ideal end state—and no lasting rules to apply. Digital transformation requires that those who practice it live in a state of constant becoming.
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