The Myth of Upside-down Digital Transformation

What is Digital Transformation? Most adopted definition is the one used by Wiki / InfoWorld / I-Scoop:

“Digital transformation is the application of digital technologies to fundamentally impact all aspects of business and society.”

There is a deceitfully simple misunderstanding of this definition. It’s the difference between “the application of digital technologies” and “HUMAN application of digital technologies”. Does this transformation start with people or with technology?

Here is the myth: When looking to digitally transform a person, a business, a society… all you need is a new turnkey technology that will disrupt and evolve their behavior.

And here comes an army of digital strategists, technology evangelists, and sales reps promoting whatever hot new technology that will change the world. Doesn’t this remind you of every technology sales pitch you’ve heard in last 20 years? Email  marketing platforms, mobile apps, digital ads, marketing automation, CRM, etc… all you need to fix a problem or change wrong behavior is a piece of software that conveniently they are selling. This is completely upside down.

May I propose an alternative definition for Digital Transformation…

“Digital Transformation = Change Management in today’s Digital world.”

Let’s reflect on history. What was the great Renaissance? Was it the print press that changed the world or how different innovative and passionate people applied the technology? How about the Industrial Revolution? Was it the steam engine that changed the world? No, it was the innovative work by people like Thomas Newcomen (invented coal steam engine), George Stephenson (developed first steam powered locomotive), Gottlieb Daimler (introduced first four-wheeled automobile in Germany), and many others… who applied the new technology.

If you give a technical person (Digital Director or IT Manager) the charge to digitally evolve a business, they often default to implementing what they know best… a piece of technology they believe will change user / customer behavior. Only it’s not the technology that creates the behavior. The behavior must already be there. Perhaps it’s not common or apparent but the pre-condition to that behavior must already be there. The technology simply enables it, triggers it, allows it to surface and be applied. We have tons of technology that is not really changing the behavior (e.g. QR codes). The key here is the understanding of current human behavior that drives the technology that then, and only then, can harness and enable that behavior.

Here is a simple example. The emergence of a mobile phone didn’t create a new behavior. People already had the desire to communicate anywhere they want, to organize their life anywhere they want, to access information real-time where ever they are. The mobile phone simply provided a specific way to enable the existing behavior.

Let me drive this home. If you understand Digital Transformation to be driven by human behavior then you will begin that journey with deep understanding of the person you’re trying to change / evolve. If you understand it to be primarily about technology, then you will spend a life time of frustration not understanding why the person you are trying to change is not using a piece of technology in the way you imagined or expected them to.

In this “human application of digital technology”, start with understanding the human (behavior) then application (processes) then resulting digital technology (software). Don’t do it upside down. Don’t start with technology. You end with technology. After all, human behavior is much harder to change than a piece of code. Start with the person you’re trying to change… even if it’s yourself.


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