To paraphrase an old joke, there are four stages of digital transformation:

  1. What is digital transformation?
  2. We need digital transformation!
  3. We need whatever comes next after digital transformation!
  4. What is digital transformation?

By 2016, most enterprises had successfully navigated their way from #1 to #2, but now that it’s 2017, there’s a good chance #3 is in the offing.

After all, digital transformation has been the hot topic for a while now. Will 2017 be the year it becomes passé? And if so, what should we do next?

Buzzword Fatigue: It’s Inevitable

In times of disruption, buzzwords play an important role. As new technologies, approaches, and priorities spring up, we need a common vocabulary so that we can cogently discuss such innovations.

However, it’s easy to overuse or misapply buzzwords. Just like salt in your soup: a pinch may be pleasing, but add too much and you’ve ruined the dish.

At some point, furthermore, we simply get tired of certain buzzwords – especially if they represent a complex challenge that organizations find difficult to understand and implement.

Buzzwords like digital transformation, therefore, are particularly susceptible to such expiration dates. Much like eBusiness at the turn of the century and service-oriented architecture (SOA) a few years later, digital transformation may eventually find itself on the business transformation discount shelf, marked down by 75%.

Not all buzzwords succumb to the same fate. Take cloud computing, for example. Even though the cloud is now well-understood and mature, the terminology is in no danger of fading away.

The difference? You can actually buy cloud. There certainly remains some confusion around the periphery, but for the most part, we can point to AWS or Salesforce or whatever and say, that’s the cloud.

Not so with digital transformation. As with eBusiness, the terminology remains persistently vague and malleable. Even worse: in many ways, the fundamental business transformations that enterprises must successfully undergo in order to remain competitive in today’s dynamic world go beyond the notion of ‘digital’ in any case.

‘Digital’ Doesn’t Fit Anyway

You might think that because Intellyx focuses on Agile Digital Transformation that we like the word digital. On the contrary – the word itself is a poor fit for the transformation we’re talking about.

After all, digital is an antonym for analog, and essentially means that a device relies upon zeroes and ones under the covers – as computers have been doing since the 1940s.

Old-timers like me will also remember Digital as in Digital Equipment Corporation, a 1950s-era computer company that eventually became part of Compaq in the 1990s. And while Digital (the company) was certainly innovative in its day, its history squarely pegs the word digital as more I Love Lucy than House of Cards.

Today, we use the word digital to refer to some kind of technology. Smartphones and all the other device form factors are squarely in the middle of digital – but in reality, we’re using digital to refer to everything from big data to artificial intelligence.

Such vagueness is often the death knell for a buzzword, as the more ways we use it, the less useful the term becomes. And yet, if all we really meant by digital once we scraped away the fluff was using zeroes and ones, then there’d be nothing to see here, move right along, thank you.

Digital transformation, therefore, risks sinking under the weight of the digital boat anchor. If digital transformation is to have legs as its own concept, therefore, there must be something, well, transformative about it.

Transformation, Whatever You Call It

And transformation there is, in spades. After all, digital transformation is customer-driven, technology-enabled, and comprehensive. No corner of the enterprise is immune from its effects.

Furthermore, the transformation won’t ever end, as the forces of change will continue to disrupt organizations of all sizes across the globe. That’s why we say digital transformation isn’t about achieving some final, digitally transformed state, but rather building change itself as a core competency.

Ironically, dealing better with change overall was a primary goal of eBusiness. But achieving such business agility was too difficult, so eBusiness became synonymous with building web-based sales and marketing channels.

Business agility was also the strategic promise of SOA in its day – until SOA became little more than an excuse to sell more middleware to unsuspecting enterprises.

Today our transformation is all digital, for better or worse. To be sure, technology – OK, digital technology – is an essential enabler of such transformation. But of course, the digital technology of the day was also at the core of eBusiness, SOA, and numerous other business transformation fads over the years, from total quality management to business process reengineering.

You might even say that each of these fads eventually sank under the weight of its own buzzwordiness. Gurus latch onto the power of the terminology, while the grunt work of business transformation remains too difficult and expensive, until executives finally give up and move on.

So, what’s different this time? Will digital transformation go the way of the management fads of the past? The terminology will, indubitably – but the transformation itself is past the point of no return. Buzzword or no, we’re in for a bumpy ride.

The Intellyx Take: Focus on the Big Picture

If it weren’t for digital technology, today’s business transformations would look quite different – but that doesn’t mean that the transformations are inherently digital. The digital appellation is a poor fit to begin with, and now it’s growing long in the tooth. 2017 may very well be the year it becomes passé, and we move onto the Next Big Thing.

Never forget, however, that digital transformation was never more than an oversimplification of a complex, multifaceted transformational process that impacts every organization differently. (That’s why our Agile Digital Transformation Roadmap poster looks the way it does, after all).

Buzzwords are in fact at their most beneficial when they are oversimplifications, as they give us easy ways of talking about difficult things. As oversimplifications, however, their useful lifetimes are inherently limited – but that doesn’t mean that the complex concepts they represent have the same limitations.

Don’t make the mistake of confusing an oversimplified buzzword with the underlying reality of digital transformation. The term may fade away, but the change driving such transformation is unceasing and relentless. Call it what you will, but digital transformation is here to stay.

Copyright © Intellyx LLC. Intellyx publishes the Agile Digital Transformation Roadmap poster, advises companies on their digital transformation initiatives, and helps vendors communicate their agility stories. As of the time of writing, none of the organizations mentioned in this article are Intellyx customers. Image credit: Dennis van Zuijlekom.

4 Comments

  1. […] affects how they approach the entire process of digital transformation – which is unfortunately becoming a clichéd buzzword […]

  2. […] a recent Cortex, I bemoaned the fact that as buzzwords go, Digital Transformation is excessively vague. There is […]

  3. […] problem is that we create buzzwords because we need a simple, shorthand way of communicating what is otherwise a com…. In the process, however, the deeper, underlying complexity of the idea is often lost, and the term […]

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