The best way to explain where industry is when it comes to digital transformation, is to describe what happened when I put out feelers for features focusing on digital transformation. Everyone wanted to comment: that’s digital agencies, software vendors, hardware companies, distributors, consultancies, you name it, they all wanted to have their say.
But instead of answering my questions, I was left with many definitions of what digital transformation is, according to a specific client, who of course has some sort of kit to flog, or software to sell, or services to provide.
What became quickly apparent is that, when asking for views on what makes digital transformation just a PR or marketing exercise, I received many examples of just that; people integrating digital transformation rhetoric into their quote, without answering the questions at hand; if end users should be looking for outcomes, and need help, how will they get it from vendors that can’t answer their questions?
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I don’t blame them of course, PR agencies have a job to do, but it just goes to show how hard it is to determine which organisations are actually undergoing a digital transformation, and which companies are actually able to help facilitate that transformation.
“Digital transformation is an increasingly supplier-led phenomenon – a proxy to sell more services. Consultants use the term to sell more hours. Digital agencies use the term to give their outputs more gravitas and purpose. Marketers use the term to describe using new mediums to spread marketing budgets more effectively, and branding agencies use it to create the existential crisis they sell to solve in the form of a new brand identity,” says Nick Parminter, CEO and founder of Flipside.
The biggest trap that organisations fall into is believing that any given IT project or any partnership with a specific vendor is equivalent to digital transformation, as Karl Hoods, chief digital and information officer at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), explains.
“Digital transformation is an overused term – how many organisations are actually transforming that are doing the same thing they were doing but with a bit of new technology? If digital transformation is done right, it’s going back to the drawing board and redesigning the work that’s being done based on the outcome needed, rather than saying ‘we’re doing digital transformation because we’re rolling out a new platform or website’,” he says.
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Hoods adds that if it a project is not actually fundamentally changing anything – such as leadership, management, attitudes or ways of working – then it cannot be considered a transformation.
“If there is no need for the organisation to pivot, is it really transforming or is it just making itself a bit more efficient,” he asks.
For Melanie Kanavakatini, front end developer at vouchercloud, there are two main things that can help to identify if digital transformation is a PR exercise within an organisation: scope and purpose.
“It depends on whether everything behind the scenes is actually joined up – from sales to accounts and CRM – and then it depends if things are actually used for the intended purpose of this transformation. As a general rule of thumb, the more buzzwords and obfuscation of basic communication we see, the less likely a project will actually be of any use,” she says, adding that sometimes just waiting six months can show whether a transformation was merely hot air.
“Many times, projects like this are used for a new leader to make a mark – for someone high up the ladder to tick a box and say they’ve pushed an initiative, whether it’s successful or not,” she adds.
Indeed, I’ve seen this first-hand, with many chief digital officers or IT leaders having to work off a ‘digital transformation’ hymn sheet – and other CIOs telling me that their peers are not actually undergoing digital transformation – but as ever it’s hard for someone on the outside to separate the wheat from the chaff.
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One way to do this is to check if a company is merely leading with new technology, rather than thinking about people and processes.
“You can have best tools in the world, but they just start to stack up like toys on a toddlers floor, unless you do the due diligence of explaining their value and bringing the rest of the business along on your digital transformation,” says John Visneski, director for information security and data protection officer at The Pokemon Company International.
“The companies that have undergone true digital transformation or are getting towards it have broken down siloes, correlating data across departments and are working more horizontally to achieve their goals,” he adds.
The biggest clue though, from an outsider, if an organisation is really going digital is having a look at where the C-level executive who is driving the transformation sits within the organisation.
“You have to check how much pull they have with respect to budgets, roadmaps and strategy. Typically those that are actually leading digital transformation will be at board meetings, and also driving business decisions that are not necessarily focused on tech,” Visneski suggests.
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