Digital transformation: Totally ** can ** happen, but feels like massive buzzword

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About a year ago, I was in Austin for some Indeed conference. It was pretty off-task and I didn’t learn much, but as I was near Rainey Street at one point, I saw a bunch of filing cabinets left out with the trash. I texted one of my friends and said “A bunch of SaaS guys just went six to midnight,” which is a gross way of saying “got erect.” He messaged back: “#DigitalTransformation.” I laughed, then went and got drunk. I got laid off from my W-2 about six days later. Good little arc of time for me.

In the altogether-flummoxing world of corporate vocabulary, “digital transformation” might occupy the GOAT slot. It might be the Michael Jordan (or LeBron James if you’re under 32) of corporate bullshit. Virtually no one knows what it actually means and everyone defines it somewhat differently. CIOs legit spend a percentage of their week arguing about what “cloud” means — we are halfway through 2020, guys — and we expect clear definitions on this stuff? And when we don’t have clear definitions, what happens? Everyone runs on circles on different, competing projects that are supposed to bring us closer to this perceived moment of utter clarity and “digital transformation,” but usually makes us more confused about what the hell work even is.

OK. So how could we define “digital transformation?”

Personally I would not say it’s about any specific piece of tech, specific strategy, specific road map, specific deck, etc. All those things are nice-to-have.

I would say that a company is “digitally transformed” when all the employees, regardless of age, physical location, affinity for tech, affinity for work overall, etc. — when all of them know what the processes and the platforms are, and know where to find things they need for work, and know who to contact and in what way they prefer to be contacted and all that.

That’s a “digitally transformed” place. When 65 year-old Martha and 26 year-old Brittany (generic names, yes) are both comfortable with G-Docs and Slack and process and version control and what exactly Mark does and when to message him, your organization has been “transformed” in a digital way.

If Martha resents Brittany, and Brittany calls Martha “Karen” behind her back, and no one knows what Mark does all day until 11.7 months from now when a cache of porn is found on his computer, well, that organization is not yet “digitally transformed.”

That’s my two cents on it.

What about The Rona and digital transformation?

This is a nuanced discussion to have because so much of the economy is really food and bar service and face-to-face retail work, and they’ve been semi-“digitally transformed” by e-comm and all that. They’ve also been “disrupted” in a lot of ways. Pier 1 Imports, whose HQ is like 2 miles from my house, basically just got perma-piped. They ain’t coming back. So “digital transformation” has a different meaning for the non-white-collar folks (and even some of the white-collar folks).

But I think The Rona allowed for a moment where companies should be aligning around this stuff and getting their ducks in a row, right? I don’t know if they’re doing that per se aside from “Hey Rachel, what’s the Zoom link again?” (PS: how did Skype lose the branding war for The Rona time frame so badly? Aren’t a bunch of people on Microsoft Teams? Shouldn’t the term “Skype” be as omnipresent right now as “Zoom?”)

I think right now, inside companies, the focus should be on the tech working and the processes making sense, with a long-term eye towards what the physical manifestations of the work look like. I know revenue is going to be down in some industries (and up big in others), and usually flashing revenue red lights means that’s the only focus of the top dogs. Since a top dog needs to drive “digital transformation,” I worry that it’s not happening in a logical sense. But I don’t work at every company under the sun, so I am hopefully wrong.

For a mini-case study on how to achieve the building blocks of “digital transformation,” might I suggest this little ditty on “tech adoption?” That’s another thing repeatedly bungled by companies — “software” becomes “shelfware” very quickly. It’s kinda the whole problem with #HRTech, where I reside periodically as a writer. Most HR Tech does not improve any aspect of being an employee; in most orgs, people just complain about it. But somehow, it’s still a $4B market or whatever. Easy to sell, speaks to a lack of efficiency, but most employees are like “Fuck, another portal I need to check? And it’s not intuitive either?”

Tech adoption is the microaggresion (ha!) of digital transformation, so it’s about getting those steps right first.

And if you’re wondering more about how business buzzwords evolve, read this.

In the meantime, leave any thoughts on digital transformation that you’d like.

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