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December 20, 2021 | 4 Mins Read

Is It Time for An Alternative Term to “Digital Transformation?” 

December 20, 2021 | 4 Mins Read

Is It Time for An Alternative Term to “Digital Transformation?” 


By Sarah Nicastro, Creator, Future of Field Service

Over the past couple of months, I’ve had a few different conversations with folks who have surfaced the question of whether or not the term “Digital Transformation” is (still) serving us. One point made is that it is a very unclear phrase – what does the transform in Digital Transformation really mean, they wonder? What constitutes ample transformation? 

The other point I’ve had posed to me is that perhaps most organizations have digitally transformed – at least in their minds – if you consider the definition of transformation as a “thorough and dramatic” change. If a company has made an initial stride in digital adoption, perhaps they feel the term no longer applies since they have indeed “transformed.” What we’re really referring to is a transformation that is ongoing rather than final, but that begs the question of whether the term accurately reflects the vision of continual improvement and refinement that we know digital demands – or if that point is being lost in translation. 

This article from the Journal of Business Research does a really good job of clarifying differences between digitization, digitalization, and Digital Transformation – but starts by referring to all three as “stages of Digital Transformation,” which to me is confusing. And I think this is where the issue lies – what may be well defined in some academic research isn’t being as well defined in our everyday vernacular. I certainly don’t have all the answers but am hoping to present some food for thought here that may help you in discussing this issue in a more relatable way in each of your businesses. 

Transformation Vs. Evolution Vs. Journey

Not all that long ago, we were at a point where the term Digital Transformation made perfect sense. Companies needed to embrace the power of digital in a meaningful way and transform their businesses to compete in the digital era. While there are always outliers, most businesses have made ample progress in this effort and have reached varying degrees of digital maturation – which is why the message of “Digital Transformation” may be coming up short in expressing the need to continue reimagining the use of digital for the business. 

So what term is the best term? The reality is, fair amounts of disdain exist for any of the terms that seem to fit – evolution, journey, etc. For companies who have successfully embraced digital, however, Digital Journey or Digital Evolution do make more logical sense than Transformation, which they likely perceive they’ve accomplished. 

However, I’m not here to attempt to redefine how we discuss digital. And honestly, I think it’s less about what we call it than how we drive a common understanding and alignment within each business. If the term is Digital Transformation, that’s fine – but we need to ensure a pervasive understanding that “Transformation” doesn’t have a finish line; it’s an ongoing effort. Otherwise, you have companies who feel they’ve checked a box and then wonder why they aren’t seeing the impact they should. 

The Real-World Digital Continuum

To communicate what I’ve gleaned from 100+ interviews per year over many years, let me share this “real-world” Digital Continuum. In day-to-day conversations and without any academic or tech speak, these are the phases I’ve seen (and do see) companies progressing through in terms of their efforts to maximize the potential of digital. 

  • Digitize – The move away from manual. At this point, very few businesses have not embraced this phase of Digital Transformation (but don’t cringe, I do still sporadically hear stories of clip boards and paper workorders).
  • Optimize – The recognition of the true potential of digital and the initial efforts of using new data from digitization to drive efficiencies, refine processes, and evolve workflows and customer communications. 
  • Automate – Moving beyond optimizing work to looking for tasks that can be automated using more sophisticated digital tools. Automation builds upon successful optimization to remove work that can be completed with technology. 
  • Increase Intelligence – Using the wealth of data this digital world provides to make the business smarter and more agile. Intelligence gleaned can be used to empower the frontline workforce, to increase revenue, to introduce new business models, to improve product development, and so much more. In many ways, while companies may feel they’ve Digitally “Transformed” once they’ve optimized or automated, intelligence is where the real value begins to unfold. 
  • Value proposition – The most sophisticated versions of Digital Transformation that I’ve discussed firsthand are companies who have successfully leveraged digital to create new customer value propositions. These companies have used their intelligence to define the ways in which digital can expand and evolve their customer relationships. 

As I said, I’m not sure the term we use matters so much as the clarity of discussions we have around it – and the importance of recognizing that, whatever we call it, there’s no end to Digital Transformation. How your company leverages digital and the potential for that to grow and expand should be a regular through line of your strategic discussions. 

Stay tuned this week for a podcast discussion with Andrea Pelizzaro, Connected Services Manager, BU Decanters at Alfa Laval about how the company is using digital both internally to drive efficiency and externally to increase customer value.