Is digital transformation just a buzzword?

@Cyril Bladier
27 June 2019

Digital transformation. It’s pretty much a case of “Talk less. Do more”. It is quite an old term which has been, in one form or another, doing the rounds since the early 2000s.

Digital maturity is still a work in progress

Conventional wisdom is that we have made great strides in digital maturity, but the reality is that there are still people around who

    • Think that using “password” as your password is a good idea.
    • Talk about “having a website on Google.”
    • Think that it is a digital win to have their (unknown) company name appear at the top of the search results when, if they were to think about it, nobody would search their company name because nobody knows it.
    • Confuse a browser with a search engine.
    • Say that they cannot send a screenshot because they cannot print the screen out.
    • Think that social media marketing is free.
    • Think that their business is rocking because they have some friends on Facebook.

Digital transformation is a bit like decisions made by committees – everyone has a bit of an input but, fundamentally, when you put the whole thing together, it can be a bit of an incoherent mess.

Lost decision makers

When faced with “content shock” (the idea that there is more and more content produced and also consumed), digital transformation content creators are often forced to take distinctive positions – different and controversial views – just to get noticed. This phenomenon only adds to the overall sense of confusion.

The problem is that clients can become completely lost, unable to work out which advice is the best – a situation which is made worse by the fact that it is not necessarily those with the most significant number of followers who are the most knowledgeable about the subject.

Back to basics: what is digital?

It might seem an odd question to be asking in 2019 but, in reality, there is not a settled view on an answer yet. As Gregory Palliere, co-founder and Chief Development Officer at iRevolution explains, “there is no universally recognized definition – indeed there are two distinct meanings of ‘digital.’ There is ‘digital’ in the sense of a computer tool – which is probably the most common use in many people’s minds – and there is also the ‘digital’ in the sense of ‘digital transformation,’ a digital that will change processes, whether manufacturing, marketing or sales. This meaning of digital is about the disruption to our very way of life and how we do things – not just for the better, but completely differently.”

Back to basics (again): what do you mean by transformation?

Transformation is not just about change. It is a necessary process that you have to engage with to succeed with digital channels. Digital has facilitated the emergence of many start-ups (including the famous ‘unicorns’). Their approach has been to identify a failing element in the value chain (quite often relating to customer experience) and do it differently, overturning the established order, and shaking the traditional leaders to their foundations.

The sheer economic size of these prominent, traditional leaders has often meant that they were unwilling or unable to question and innovate, to face up to the reality of their problems. The situation is such today that mere optimization or change is not enough anymore, so instead, we talk about transformation.

Well, that’s scary!

Yes, it’s scary – that’s natural! This isn’t about doing what we learned at school, doing what we have always done. There is no recipe or formula to apply. So, obviously, that’s scary. Also, a lack of knowledge can exacerbate that.

The scariest failures come from those companies that do nothing rather than those who have tried but done it poorly.

The customer? What’s that?

One of the fundamental characteristics of businesses that go to the wall, of projects that do not get results and even the creation of most ‘Uber’-ized businesses, is neglecting the client. We talk about it in the article “How to guarantee digital transformation failure”. Amazon, Apple, Uber, AirBnB are all born out of customer, and all developed to respond to it.

The old order all believe they know their customers. In the best case scenario, they have met a few dozen typical customers – but very few know their customers. If we take into account those who understand them and who really take them into account in their decision-making, there are not many. It is very common for these businesses to have not met any customers at all – you would be surprised by how many marketing managers have been nowhere near one.

Who is in charge of digital transformation?

CDO: Chief Digital Officer. Chief Data Officer.

CTO: Chief Transformation Officer.

Again, we are faced with an alphabet soup which can mean the same thing or nothing, depending on whom you talk to. “Digital experts” do not help matters. These are terms which are almost two decades old, although CTO is newer (if rarely used).

It is still a struggle to define these positions: is, for example, digital integrated into each of them? Is it the responsibility of marketing or IT? Often, it seems that the digital manager has got the job by accident or for entirely the wrong reasons. Even with the best of intentions, his career is full of pitfalls (see the article Travels to the Edge of Digital Transformation Hell [LINK]

Often, their survival instinct kicks in, and they try to do nothing for fear of making a mistake or their hands are tied because they are reliant on an external provider, one who has been picked for reasons of brand reputation rather than any recommendations to do with whether or not they can do the job.


Digital transformation is a double-edged sword – both a buzzword and a serious subject. Although apparently, some levers can seem simple, it is rarely the case. Ten years ago, you had to know your subject area, and you would learn digital on the job, today you have to understand digital, and you get to learn your subject area on the job!

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