Digital transformation versus digital transition: Which one is your company executing?

Professor Mark Ritson, one of my top 3 heroes in marketing talks a lot about how as an industry, we must stop applying the word digital to so many facets of marketing (e.g. the fact that Digital Marketing isn’t a thing. I propose we apply this same logic to digital transformation.

I feel compelled to repeat something I’ve written before as it is relevant here. This blog isn’t (always) about tearing apart concepts and practices. Often, it is focused on the term that we assign to these concepts and practices. And in this case, I’m not totally against digital transformation as a concept, inasmuch as I am its title. The reason I have such strong feelings about the name is that the practice exists in a very fragile area of a business – one that requires empathy and advocacy to those at a company who may be easily intimidated by the word, digital. It is almost an intentional effort to intimidate employees of an organization, for no reason. But then again, the way so many companies facilitate this transformation ignores the unique proficiencies and aptitudes of employees – focusing instead on which shiny new toys can be onboarded.

When people transitioned from the telegraph to fax machines, in the 1930’s, there was little intimidation, mostly deep interest and amazement at what it could do. Alternatively, when Windows first hit the scene, customers flocked to it, again with amazement. However, when a transformation occurred of Microsoft Windows to an entirely new UI within Windows 8 – it was bad news for Microsoft-

“Many users and businesses found Windows 8 a step too far: the changes to the look and feel of the OS — in particular the removal of the familiar Start button and the inability to boot to the desktop — was met with horror by many.

Although obsolete today, fax machines still play a role in many businesses, (typically those with heavy and antiquated regulations). Windows 8 on the other hand is something many PC users are happy to forget ever existed.

The point here is that transitions and transformations are not synonymous and they must be treated and approached very differently. In general, people either welcome or accept transitions, despite some anxiety. But when we attempt to transform, it intimidates the shit out of people.

Transformation means “the operation of changing (as by rotation or mapping) one configuration.”

In other words, a reconfiguration – a total shift from something that already exists.

A transition is “a change or shift from one state, subject, place, etc. to another.”

In other words, an enhancement to complement or improve something.

When Microsoft transformed Windows, they took it a step too far (I think they took it a mile too far). When they went back to the drawing board, they realized what they needed to do is transition – making performance improvements, adding new features and benefits, while retaining the familiarity and functions that will prevent a user from slowing down in their day or operating inefficiently.

I would argue that this term, digital transformation, poorly describes the actual activities involved in the practice. Yet again, much like the job title of marketing technologist (see sidebar, below), companies like to redefine what these terms mean. True digital transformation also includes elements of transition and the lack of appreciation for the differing emotional impact each has, must change.

What term would I use instead? You tell me – I’m curious. Please visit our site and let me know.

One other word that is often missing from the documented processes included in digital transformation is training. Training must be an essential ingredient of any transformation or transition. I believe that a responsible framework for any such effort must include two, parallel paths – but two that aim to achieve similar goals in the areas of operations and training

Digital transformation
True digital transformation can be broken down into two clearly defined processes.


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