Digital transformation: think globally, act locally

There may be at least eight different shades of 'digital transformation,' but it always comes down to solving specific business problems

When you move your database to the cloud, it's digital transformation. When customers can make payments through a secure website, it's digital transformation. When employees can manage and track their work schedules via mobile phone, that's digital transformation.

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Photo: Joe McKendrick

More often than not, you're not even calling it "digital transformation." It's about productivity, it's about access, it's about getting customers what they want,when they want it. People across the enterprise see such transformation through their own lenses. So does it even make sense to launch or attempt to sustain some kind of broad "digital transformation" effort?

Researchers at IDG recently attempted to apply a unified field theory to the meaning of "digital transformation," based on the results of a survey of 702 IT and business decision-makers. Essentially, they identified eight ways people look at it:

  • Employee productivity. For 52 percent of executives, "becoming a digital business means enabling worker productivity through tools such as mobile, data access and AI-assisted processes."
  • Data-driven business performance. Close to half, 49 percent, also see digital transformation as "the ability to better manage business performance through data availability and visibility."
  • Customer experience. "For 46 percent of decision-makers, digital transformation "means meeting customer experience expectations, while 44 percent see it as "understanding customer needs through data collection and analysis."
  • Mobile capabilities. Another 46 percent see digital transformation as "providing secure, optimized anywhere/anytime access to assets."
  • Process automaton. At least 37 percent say digital transformation means "digitally modifying business and/or processes ."
  • Revenue streams. One-third, 33 percent, say digital transformation means developing new digital business/revenue streams.
  • Product innovation. Another 31 percent see digital transformation as achieving top-line growth through digital product enhancements/new digital products or services.
  • Supply chain optimization. For more than a quarter of companies surveyed (27 percent), digital transformation means digitizing "the flow of data and information worldwide which enables the movement of goods, services, finance and people."

There are key technology initiatives laced throughout all of these areas that make digitization a reality: cloud, Internet of Things, artificial intelligence and software defined networking to name a few. Tellingly, in most cases, only about half of the organizations in the IDG survey are either working with these technologies or are planning to do so shortly. For example, 53 percent are working with private clouds, 45 percent with public clouds. Another 56 percent are exploring AI or machine learning.

That begs the question of what the other, less-engaged half of this group is doing -- and how they expect to compete in a world that is rapidly tipping in favor of technology-savvy disruptors. It's important to point out that technology and digitization alone do not deliver market success -- it takes visionary management first.

Back to our question about the efficacy of launching some kind of digital transformation program. There is no shortage of talk of how digital transformation will put organizations on the path to glorious growth. But it's not about launching some grandiose enterprise program and buying piles of expensive new technology. It's about rolling up one's sleeves, sitting down with teams from across the business, and understanding what works for the business and how it can be improved.

When it comes to digitally enabling any one of the above-mentioned functional areas, it may make sense to look at how digital approaches can help each one before upgrading existing analog or manual processes. More than a third of organizations in the IDG survey (44 percent), in fact, are already buying into a "digital-first" philosophy as it pertains to revamping business processes, operations and customer engagement. That's a good place to start. One process at a time, one day at a time.

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