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Digital Transformation: Big D, little d

Epiphany: Consultancies and technology groups are the biggest culprits in trying to dumb down the concept of Digital Transformation. I couldn’t quite put my finger on the reason why, until recently. But I think I understand now, but let’s rewind first.

When I speak with technologists—people on the IT side of the house—I see and hear a lot of otherwise trivial digital proposals trying to masquerade as Big-D, Digital initiatives. The small-d proposals typically involve business-as-usual, operational tasks. Because these tasks happen to use computers, they get binned into the Digital realm.

Let’s step back for a few moments. People who know me professionally have likely heard me reference things as Big this or little that. I’m fond of the distinction. It’s meant to convey a difference in scale. I’ve found it to be necessary to parse the intent of the conveyance. And here’s what I mean by this.

In my professional life, there are certain buzzwords that people want to toss around because they are in vogue. These are terms such as digital, transformation, strategy, innovation, agile, and so on. When people read blogs and other content, they feel they need to get on the bandwagon. Dunning-Kruger rears its ugly head, and the next thing you know, these people either think they’re doing this new fad, or they are talking to someone who can help them to get there. I hate to say it, but much of this is snake-oil and homoeopathics.

Let me explain. Agile is still all the rage. It’s even expanding beyond its roots in software development, into Agile Marketing, Agile Operations, and so on, but it’s not even well-practiced in software development. Real Agile, is the capital version. Agile with an upper-case A. The rest is performative weak tea. I talk about this in another segment, so I’ll continue.

My concern here is with Digital Transformation Strategy and a call-out to Innovation for good measure.

Digital Transformation Strategy, spelt with upper case initials, Capital D, Capital T, and Capital S, represents a major overhaul of an enterprise. I touch on Digital in the Frictionless segment. Upper case Digital is about digitalisation at scale. It’s not about implementing a CRM system or a digital commerce platform. It’s not about installing Adobe Experience Manager. It’s about changing the way the entire enterprise does business. From people, to process, to platforms and other technology.

This is a perfect segue into Capital T Transformation. This is not hiring a few digital marketers or hiring some social media experts, or even rejiggering your marketing department. Don’t get me wrong. This is transformation. It’s arguably even necessary and is a very likely candidate to be a piece of an enterprise transformation. But this is just a sliver. It’s a lower case t transformation—minuscule t. Capital T touches everything from ideation, R & D, manufacturing, inventory, logistics, sales, marketing, finance, operations, IT, customer service, human resources, and everything in between. Nothing left untouched. This needs to be approached from a System-Thinking mindset. Transforming your marketing operations at the exclusion of virtually everything else, is like trying to optimise your competitive racing bike by upgrading your chain. Your enterprise is a system, and your system is only as good as the weakest link.

So, transforming your marketing function may be necessary. It may even be what you choose to transform first, but don’t mistake this for a Capital-T transformation. It may yield benefits. I’ve got no doubt that it can. But this is a lower case transformation, and you’ve still got a long journey to mature to capture all of the benefits a fully-transformed enterprise has to offer. This is the Capital T version of transformation waiting in the wings.

I want to take a moment to give colour and shape to the notion of Capital-T Transformation. Many organisation see this as a daunting task. Tantamount to boiling the ocean. And this may be so. But this is a cost vector. One needs to consider benefits as well.

Keep this in mind. The world is making progress. It’s changing. And it’s transforming. I’m not going to beat the Blockbuster-Netflix cautionary drum, but there is a cost of delay, so implementation speed, the speed of your transformation, matters. If you move too slowly, you may end up on the sidelines. And maybe you’ll be remembered fondly for a while, like Blockbuster. Remember when.

And, before I move on, this is a trick that companies and consultancies use with smoke-and-mirrors to attempt to claim success in transformation. They take a relatively small piece of their business, and they change something. And they succeed. Hooray! Pats on the back, and everyone is happy. Right? Not quite right. This minuscule change will not yield the return of a full transformation. Caveat emptor. Buyer beware.

And then there’s strategy. This is another topic in and of itself. The term is so misused and misunderstood, so I’ll keep this short.

I’ve continued to ask myself how such small thinking can be blown up as transformational, but I’ve come to realise that since there are no transformational ideas in some organisations. At least none that get funding, they want to take credit for something, and in such digitally immature cultures, no one is any the wiser. People who know what Digital is, cringe when we witness this. If these organisations had Big-D initiatives for comparison, they would not bother trying to stack the deck with little-d fodder. Perspective is what’s missing.

Of course, there are the foundational elements that need to be in place to enable Big-D Digital, but these are not transformational. Are these investments necessary? Yes. Are they transformational? No. Buying a jet does not make me a pilot.

And another thing: around three-quarters of Digital Transformation projects are executed from the CIO. About 75% of Digital initiatives fail. Coincidence. I think not. I raised this to a CEO recently, and he challenged my point, asking if I thought that a modern-day CIO would really be out of sync with the customer and experience trends. This connection is oblique and tangential at best.

Because computers are digital implements, immature organisations associate them and their purveyors to digital. This is a mistake.

For my next trick, I’d like to discuss digitisation versus digitalisation. The former is appropriate for a CIO and has been done since the 1970s, if not the 1950s; the latter is work for the twenty-first century as a necessary component of any viable transformation strategy.

Disclaimer: This topic was derived from an article I posted on LinkedIn. It’s what we refer to in the business as modular reuse. This perspective is not the only thing keeping your organisation from transforming.

Be sure to check out the segment on how your corporate culture is one of your biggest enemies, and how most organisations don’t grasp to what extent they hold themselves back.

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