What is digital transformation?

September 16th, 2020 Written by Tim Benjamin

The setup

You’re in a lift and get into conversation with the other person in the lift – turns out they are the CEO of $BIG_COMPANY. They ask what you do. 

“I’m at Infinity Works, and we’re a leading digital transformation consultancy”, you say.

“Interesting…”, the CEO says, “…what is digital transformation?”

What’s your answer? You have about 20 seconds before the door opens.

What just happened?

I posted this little setup on our company Slack recently, to find out how some of our engineers would describe digital transformation. At Infinity Works, digital transformation is the driving force behind everything we do – as described on this very website! – but as a term, it means different things to different people. 

What is digital transformation, then?

Let’s have a look at some of the answers given by some of our Infinity Works team members.

Ezequiel points us to an article on The MIT Press, which offers a problem-solving definition he likes:

“…essentially that this is a never-ending journey of maturing into an organisation where every member can think of business-relevant problems in terms of how technology can help solve them.”

Steven takes a slightly different approach, focusing on customers and products:

“Modern businesses need to service customers through digital channels. A digital transformation is about making this possible, in a way that least disrupts your product plans.”

Rebecca responded to the post by encouraging everyone to: 

“Come watch my mini conf talk ;)”

She’s giving a talk all about digital transformation at one of our customers at our next quarterly Infinity Works mini conference – a great occasion where we all get together and hear talks from our colleagues on subjects that interest them. But as that’s closed to the public, she’s provided this quick definition for this blog post:

“Digital transformation is an ongoing, company-wide people process that leads to selecting the right technology to iteratively build the product the business truly needs.”

Ivor takes issue with the term, but offers a pithy definition all the same!

“I honestly wouldn’t say digital transformation. Do most of us say that when asked what their job is? We solve problems and kick ass doing it.”

At this point, contributors to the thread started to focus more on what Infinity Works does by way of digital transformation, picking up on Ivor’s claim, and more directly answering our fictitious CEO.

Trevor cuts straight to the point:

“Can’t you avoid hype – if a business is in a ‘bad place’, we get them to a ‘good place’ without fuss, waste and additional hype.”

Neil Dunlop, who as Technology Director for Leeds and London is one of our most senior team members, gives this thoughtful answer:

“We help customers make best use of modern technology and ways of working to deliver business value – which is usually making money, saving money, reducing risk or driving a strategy.”

Edward also focuses on the value Infinity Works tries to unlock for customers:

“We help customers maximise the value from their technologists and data, to help their business achieve more.”

Charles offers a more fantastical answer:

“Look at the internet unicorns. These are all companies that excel at delivering their services in a way that is optimised for the digital world. We help transform businesses into unicorns.”

20 seconds is a long time

I received some more in-depth answers, arguably pushing the 20 seconds to its limit, but they are well worth hearing, and might even get our made-up CEO to pause at the lift doors for a moment or two longer!

Here are the responses from Mark Melvin (Business Development Director), Adrian Hesketh (Head of Partnerships), and Anna Broadhurst (Practice Lead for one of our financial services customers, Leeds)

First up, Mark views digital transformation as a process, drawing on a similar to theme to Ezequiel’s answer:

“I would describe digital transformation as the process of adopting and deploying technology to enable or improve existing processes, that ultimately brings benefits to the end user of the service – whether a customer, citizen, or patient, depending on the setting. I think it’s always interesting to hear people say they are doing a digital transformation programme for, say, 2 years. In my view it is a never-ending programme to constantly improve and adopt technology. Organisations can get into trouble if they have done nothing to transform for years, then do something for a year, and then stand still again.”

Adrian highlights the importance of business functions in relation to digital transformation:

“Digital transformation is the transformation of a business by adopting digital technologies across all functions to accelerate sales and growth. The key is ‘across all functions’ – the concepts of ‘the IT department’ vs ‘the business’ is no longer valid. Thinking of ‘IT’ as the people that make the technical element of a product is an anti-pattern. The CIO office and IT are responsible for internal tooling and to allow the organisation to communicate with itself. Why expect the people who look after your phones and computers to be the same people who build a cutting edge digital experience? In digitally transformed organisations, the digital technology in the product is owned by the product team.”

Let’s give the last word to Anna, who brings together many of these ideas:

“Truly digitally transformed organisations are ones which deliver better digital products and services to their customers. Organisations which see through digital transformations often take advantage of cloud technologies to replatform legacy technology quickly, or build new front-end applications that deliver new and improved functionality to their customers quickly. Start-ups don’t have any legacy, so they are able to deliver value without the problem of legacy. These companies are typically referred to as being ‘born digital’. Digital transformation brings the advantages of being ‘born digital’ to well-established organisations.”

Bringing it together

So what can we take from all of these answers? Let’s pick out the key, common elements of the answers:

  • It’s a continuous, never-ending process.
  • In digital transformation, business problems are solved by technology.
  • It seeks to minimise waste and hype….
  • … whereas the value in technology and data is maximised.
  • Services are delivered in a way that is optimised for the digital world.
  • Those services focus on the value to the end-user.
  • Digital transformation takes place across all functions in a business.
  • Products and services, rooted in technology, are owned by product teams, not ‘IT’.
  • Digital transformation takes the best aspects of start ups and brings them to established businesses.

But let’s finish with an even more important question. If you were that CEO in the lift, would you come away from that lift with a fresh perspective and a clearer understanding? Would your answer now be different: “What is digital transformation?”