For some time now, I have felt that the concept of digital transformation is more of a marketing concept than a real practice. What is the real difference between the work of IT and Digital Transformation?
If we look around the internet, the answer to this question would come in the form of hundreds or thousands of articles pointing out 5, 7, or 9 differences, all pointing to certain key areas and/or differentiators.
To a person new to the world of IT, all of these points really resonate, they have the aura of innovation, evolution, and change. IT has always been at the forefront of innovation, at the forefront of technology and one would expect no less from it. This can intrigue both an IT graduate and an executive/manager who is being introduced to the magic of the IT world.
But as we have all seen in recent years, Digital Transformation holds many challenges and many organizations struggle with its implementation.
The DX (or DT) as a term or concept has been with us for probably the last 10-15 years. IT has been with us for at least 70-80 years. There is no Digital Transformation without IT. So we could conclude that digital transformation is the evolution of IT.
But wait! If you search the internet for the essence of digital transformation and its key success factors, you will find that most of these success factors have nothing to do with IT but rather relate to talent management, agility, change management…
This raises another question. Let’s focus again on the concept of digital transformation. It consists of the two words “digital” and “transformation”, similar to IT, which contains “information” and “technologies”. One could find a difference between the two terms in that DX could be interpreted as the transformation of a business (or organization) with digital technologies and IT as the use of information technologies to increase the operational efficiency of an organization. This positions DX as the more evolved version of IT, which is gaining a place on the boardroom agenda, whereas IT has always been an unwelcome but unavoidable topic. But, what are digital technologies, are they the same as IT technologies. We’ll come back to that later.
IT has always been a complex subject that has been a challenge for everyone. There has never been a clear answer to most questions related to IT. You always get a counter-question (one if you’re lucky) and almost always the famous statements – it depends…
Digital transformation was a nice marketing ploy to explain the importance of IT to a wider audience, to highlight the immense change in technology maturity that has taken place in the last 5, 10 years. People see AI all around us, robotics has taken hold with human-like features. Cloud computing and IoT have brought digitization into every aspect of our lives and work. But please, don’t be hypnotized by these technologies.
Although AI has evolved, it has not yet reached anywhere near its holy grail (mimicking human-like behavior or presenting human-like problem-solving techniques). Various AI techniques such as machine learning, coupled with immense computing power and access to cloud data, have delivered fascinating results (at least for the end-user). The advancements in robotics are mainly due to low-cost embedded electronics and AI. The cloud computing concept was introduced 60-70 years ago with the introduction of mainframes, and sensors have been around almost as long, the only difference being they were 100 times more expensive and not connected to the internet (at least not as we know it today).
Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to belittle the hard work and outstanding achievements of scientists and engineers around the world in the field of electronics, AI, and robotics, I’m just saying that this is part of a natural process of technology research and advancement that we were so used to in the world of IT.
When we talk about digital technologies or digital engineering, we mean robots, drones, and other similar devices that have not had any significant IT components or at least autonomous functions. To emphasize the (r)evolutionary step, this merging of IT and mechanical things, we coined the term digital technologies and digital transformation as the journey we all need to take.
One of the key essences of digital transformation and its key enablers is the access to huge amounts of data coming from cloud services and cloud megacorporations like Google, as well as the explosion of smart devices like smartphones and sensors (IoT). Combined with AI techniques, you get two things: insights into behavior and the ability to predict things at an unprecedented level, all made possible by cheap access to supercomputing power.
These two things were enough to transform the old-fashioned IT into something else, into a movement that popularized IT, STEM and put digital on the agenda of everyone from businesses to governments. That’s because those two things matter most to businesses.
Another thing that has contributed to the popularity of digital transformation is the ease of use and ubiquitous aspect of IT, the feeling that you can no longer do anything without having a digital component. Buildings, bicycles, clothing, everything has electronic components and digital interfaces. It was a good time to create the concept of digital transformation, a concept that deeply engages the CxOs, the decision-makers in government, something IT has always struggled with. And in the end, it’s all good, having more technology and access to information makes our lives easier and stimulates economic growth, but don’t be fooled that behind every digital transformation initiative are numerous IT projects with the same technological, organizational, and operational challenges as 10, 20 or 40 years ago.
The key challenges and opportunities of digital transformation are access to talent and big amount of data, managing expectations and change, and how to deliver quickly ROI. If you ask an experienced CIO, he would tell you that the same challenges existed 10, 20, or 30 years ago.
There is a little irony in the concept (term) of digital transformation as opposed to information technologies. Digital can be defined as the storage of data and digital transformation has access to vast amounts of data, but getting and constructing the right information from that data is still key. Within digital transformation, AI is the critical technology. In this sense, information technologies, especially with their early work on expert systems, knowledge management, and ontologies, are by far the more appropriate discipline (and science field) for today’s business and government challenges.
Will digital transformation become an established practice like project management, or will it remain a selling point for IT?
Time will tell, but I think we need to invest much more in IT not the technology part, but other areas. The first area is the information part, the second is the practice of IT. Compared to architecture and construction, for example, IT is a young discipline, a field where we have not yet mastered all the techniques to successfully manage large-scale projects, product developments, and end-user expectations. Of course, architecture and construction have changed much more slowly throughout history than IT.
The first handheld devices such as Palm, Blackberry, and especially the iPhone have contributed more to the proliferation and popularization of digital devices over the last 20-30 years than the traditional IT. We should consider this as the most valuable lesson.
We can conclude that there will always be four factors: Technology, which will mostly be the realm of engineers, end-users, who will always have the technology gap, and subject matter experts, who sit in the middle. The fourth factor is change (transformation) because change is the only inevitable thing in the world. Technology is always evolving, providing the fuel for new ideas to emerge as the world constantly creates new challenges.
The transformation from one state to another is always happening and in this sense, “Digital Transformation” is a welcome or even much-needed motivator to tackle new things.