Why aiming to achieve "digital transformation" isn’t quite the right place to start

by Colin Light Digital Consulting Leader


In the course of my work, I get lots of requests from clients asking me to come and talk about digital transformation. My usual response is to start by saying it’s a great question – but just the wrong one.

Because the truth is there’s no such thing as “digital transformation” – just like there’s no “digital strategy”. There’s only transformation, since today virtually everything is digital.

Transformation by definition implies a step-change from where a business is today rather than an evolution. So, before starting the transformation, organisations need to be clear about what it’s step-changing to.

This might seem self-evident. But it needs saying. In recent years, I’ve heard all too many businesses claim that they’re in the midst of a digital transformation because they have various digital programmes under way across the enterprise. Then in a couple of years when all these projects will have come together – the organisation will be transformed into a digital business.

Sadly, experience shows that’s not how it works. The only approach to transformation that succeeds is to start with a clear vision of where you want your step-change to take you, and work back from there.

This vision can vary widely between companies and industries. It might involve looking at your supply chain, workforce engagement, productivity or customer experience. But whatever the change may be, having a clear vision of what it will mean enables you to work back from it and prioritise the steps to get there – including identifying the fastest way to get to the most valuable outcomes. This is clearly very different from planning a programme of work in isolation, and then working out what technology is needed to implement it.

So, having defined the future vision, what’s the best approach to turning into reality? The key is to apply three lenses to the vision – which we sum up through BXT, meaning Business, eXperience and Technology. No matter how small or large the change, realising the vision requires all three to be applied.

Unsurprisingly, the business lens looks at how the step-change will contribute to business performance and profitability, and the company’s competitive positioning in the wider industry.

Meanwhile, the experience lens is about identifying the true motivation that will help people along the journey to the vision. This doesn’t mean bolting on a pretty front-end, this is about co-creating the future vision with the people you need to join you on the journey – usually customers, employees or both – and understanding their real behaviours. Get this right, and you’ll seed the roots of adoption that will make the change happen.

Finally, the technology lens zeroes in on the technology that will underpin everything else with the cybersecurity to protect it – and which is now key to enabling all forms of change and transformation. Get this right and you’ll have the best digital platform to support the vision. Approaching through all three lenses together not only delivers the vision, but also brings clarity around the fastest possible time to implement the required changes.

When I map all this out for clients, I invariably find that they get it immediately. And the discussion usually leads on to a more focused exchange on the nature and role of innovation in transformation. Sadly there isn’t room here to go into that here, and I’ll have to leave it for a future blog post.

So, the next time you hear someone ask about digital transformation, I know what you’ll be thinking. “Good question. But it just happens there’s a better one…”

by Colin Light Digital Consulting Leader