Digital Transformation Is Not What You Think It Is

January 14, 2021
January 14, 2021 Jamie Notter

This post originally appeared on Forbes.com.


You know a term has hit buzzword status when nearly every article about that topic begins by claiming a) it’s really very important and b) it’s not just a buzzword. That has definitely happened with the term “digital transformation.” A wide variety of industries are tackling it, and it seems to be as relevant to huge commercial enterprises as it is to small nonprofits. Maddie Grant and I wrote about “digital” four years ago in our book, When Millennials Take Over, as one of four capacities organizations must develop to flourish in the millennial era. And like many of the writers in today’s digital transformation conversations, we argued then that it is only partially about the technology — it’s also about a new mindset, including being more focused on the “user” (both internally and externally), providing broader opportunities for customization and building the capacity for continuous innovation.

When you’re talking about “mindset,” you’re talking about workplace culture, and most advocates of digital transformation have not shied away from that part of this conversation. For example, Jim Swanson wrote about his digital transformation efforts when he was CIO at Monsanto. Swanson strongly emphasized the role of culture, urging companies to understand what digital means for their objectives.

As a consultant who works on culture, you’d think I would welcome this inclusion of culture in the digital transformation conversation, but I think there’s a fatal flaw in how CIOs and other technology-centered advocates understand culture’s role in digital transformation. That is, they put digital first — not culture.

I see that theme consistently in the writing of the tech sector on this topic. Some argue that successful digital transformation requires a “digital culture,” one where both technology and the tech mindset are central (rather than merely the domain of IT). They want things like experimentation, failing fast, prototyping, and innovation to be the pillars of the new culture. Why? Because that’s how the tech people work, and they view digital transformation as integrating technology into every part of the business, so obviously those components need to be central in the culture.

There’s just one problem…

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Photo by Alex Knight