Digital Transformation Is Seriously Misnamed

Digital Transformation Is Seriously Misnamed

Digital Transformation Is Seriously Misnamed 1280 720 Steve Palmer

Our main business is helping business, regardless of size, with their “digital transformation” journeys. This is an super way to spend your day. We get to work with super-smart people who are being forced to adapt their organisations to the accelerating pace of exponential change. The process is generally known as “digital transformation.” But that is a misnomer. There’s no such thing as analog transformation, or quantum transformation. By definition, all current technological transformations are digital. It is also important to point out that technology is ephemeral – the only successful path to digital transformation is through sociological transformation – so we need a new name!

The Process Is the Product

Back in film school (NYU TSOA ’79), the legendary Haig Manoogian mentored the likes of Martin Scorsese, Chris Columbus, and Marty Brest, to name a few. Haig taught that “the process is the product.” To him, the best directors were benevolent dictators with a clear vision for the desired outcome and, most importantly, the leadership skills to create a process and an environment where everyone working on the project, from the production assistants to the actor playing the leading role, was incentivised to deliver that outcome.

To do this, Haig loved to put his students into impossible sociological situations with classmates as he forced them to create short films in three-day sprints. He’d pair them with a fellow student who was to be their camera operator (even though that person was known to be terrible at it). Students would be assigned to work with another student whose role was to produce their film. By the second semester, it was clear that Haig looked at their filmmaking talent as table stakes for being in his class – he was teaching them to figure out the sociology (and the psychology) of their peers, co-workers, and subordinates and create a process that was so positive, the product created from it would be a reflection of it.

Culture vs. Technology

The enduring battle between the “middle management mafia” and technology is not new. Sabotage (the ‎etymology of which will surprise you; it’s not the story you know) probably predates the Gilded Age. But this ancient sentiment echoes in the halls of modern corporate life. People fear what they don’t understand. And what they fear, they seek to destroy. This is a broad generalisation, and you may not personally feel that it reflects your attitude, but almost any group, cluster, or cohort of humans you take a minute to study will, as a group, behave this way.

So, the first step to digital transformation (for which we really need a new name) is to share a clear vision and goal. “We’re going to make it faster for people to get across the river.” Then, and only then, should you begin the decision-making process to determine whether you will build a bridge, a tunnel, a tram, a people mover, a ferry fleet, a barge fleet, a transporter from Star Trek, or something else. The technology that enables the “how” is evolving exponentially fast, and the pace of that evolution is accelerating, which makes starting with technology (the “how”) a very bad idea. While the “why” may change (a competitor could disrupt your plans with a better idea that is executed in advance of yours), it is always the “why” or simply the goal that drives the cultural evolution that enables what we are calling digital transformation.

This unfortunate reality is exacerbated by an observation made by Upton Sinclair: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” Which is a long way of saying that digital transformation has nothing to do with digital and is only superficially related to transformation. It is about creating a corporate culture where people are incentivised to deliver a shared vision. If that vision happens to require some new technology, so be it. But digital transformation starts and ends in the hearts and minds of the workforce. “Technology” is just another word for “tool.”

By Shelly Palmer