Everyone is 'going digital’, but just what does that mean? (2020 Edition)

Many moons ago I used to write for the popular IT trade publication “ZDNet”. One of the articles I wrote in 2014 there called Everyone is ‘going digital’, but just what does that mean? got more traffic than virtually every other piece I published. I still get emails about it fairly frequently.

“Going digital” – or “digital transformation” – are phrases that appear to have absolutely zero meaning and zero communicative intent, but yet people use them all the time to mean something. If you were talking to a friend about their business and they said, “Oh yes, we’re going through this huge digital transformation exercise at the moment?” would you have a sense as to exactly what they were doing?

In 2014, there was a simple definition for “digital transformation”, which was SMAC, or “social”, “analytics”, “mobile”, and “cloud”. My 2014 article was released about five months before the iPhone 6 was released, but today those four elements are things that we now treat as absolutely required – “social” refers to the idea that social networking is a core part of how we interact with each other and our customers, “analytics” refers to the idea that data-driven decision making is the best sort of (scalable) decision making method, “mobile” refers to the idea that we like to at least be able to access everything on the go through our smartphones, and “cloud” refers to the idea that prefer to have our customer systems based in the cloud.

Given that we pretty much nailed the 2014 objectives what does “going digital”, or “digital transformation” mean in 2020?

Firstly, it’s interesting that it’s no more clearly defined now in 2020 than it was in 2014. (I remember in 2014 having to dig quite hard to find a workable definition.) It’s remains a term that everyone uses but no-one defines, but in 2014 the focus of digital transformation was on the customer. Social was used as a way of reaching customers, mobile was a way of working with customers who either didn’t have old-school computers and wanted to use their phones, analytics was a way of making sense of the behaviour of a large number of customers just by looking at the data, and cloud was a way of managing the computer systems ostensibly for reasons of efficiency and flexibility beneficial to the business.

Digital transformation today is defined more about getting “digital stuff” into every nook and cranny within our businesses. What that “digital stuff” is we’ll get to, but what’s different today compared to six years ago is that that in 2014 we were looking at a sliver or spike of functionality around social, mobile, analytics, and cloud implemented, but now we’re looking at digital across all functions and across all aspects of the business.

When we see the IT industry invent terms, some care has to be taken because the IT industry is very good at packaging and promoting what is primarily of benefit to the IT industry itself, and has a habit of doing so using buzzwords that are light on communicative intent. (For example, just what is “edge analytics”? Gartner seems to think it’ll be hugely important within the next five years…) Digital transformation requires procurement of IT systems and services – as such, anyone trying to sell you digital transformation has skin in the game. “Digital transformation” can be translated as “buy more IT systems”. In 2014 the message around “digital transformation” was “focus your IT spend here, here, here, and here”. Now, the message is “actually, just spend money to put IT everywhere”.

When we see a very broad “sell” in this way, the pain points that are being presented by the sales and marketing bods also end up being very broad. Digital transformation looks to “drive efficiency”, “increase opportunity agility”, “improve competitiveness”, and “empower the workforce”. None of that really means anything. Anyone presented with those descriptors would say they had those pain points and would want to solve them. “I want to be more efficient”, “I want to be more agile” – of course you do, who doesn’t?

I often talk about the difference between IT in the smaller business and in the larger business. The larger business tends to look at IT as a toolkit for innovation that lets the organisation change itself in a way that is beneficial to itself. The smaller business tends to look at IT as tools for communication and document storage.

For the smaller business, “digital transformation” refers to the first stages of a mindset change within management and a culture change within the business starts to regard IT as something that can be used to guide and mould the evolution of the business over time, as opposed to this nuts and bolts communication and document storage tools. When that mindset starts to change, management can look at ways in which IT can do all the buzzwords above like driving efficiency, and being more ready to move on opportunity, and you can create a culture where everyone can “lean in” and do that.

A good place to start with this is looking at data-driven decisions. I touched upon that topic in “Optimising Your Growth By Transforming Your Decision Making”. I’ll be covering this topic more in the future as well.

By Matthew Reynolds