Why the term ‘digital transformation’ will soon be irrelevant
Almost overnight, the pandemic propelled the business world into the future, accelerating digital transformation timelines, on average, by around 6 years. Like a comet, the digital age approached over decades… then crash landed, stress-testing those who were ready and forcing change on those who were not.
The digital era is here and only the businesses which keep transforming themselves digitally will succeed. Even the term ‘digital transformation’ will fade into irrelevance, as all those who fail to keep transforming become extinct.
Here, we take a quick look at: how the pandemic has been a watershed moment for digital transformation, what digital transformation is (and isn’t), and how success or failure in this digital age will hinge on getting the ‘people side’ right.
of organisations had plans to adopt a digital-first business strategy when surveyed in 2018.
of business decision-makers say that the pandemic has sped up digital transformation at their company.
A watershed moment: how COVID-19 compressed the roadmaps
In 2018, a survey showed 89% of organisations had plans to adopt a digital-first business strategy. This year, COVID-19 stress-tested who had, and who hadn’t, made progress in implementing those plans.
For the past few decades, technology has been rapidly advancing, shifting customer expectations and accelerating the pace of market change. The need to harness new technologies has, therefore, long been a pressing issue, with companies looking to increase operational efficiency, transform existing business processes, and deliver a more digital employee and customer experience.
COVID-19 then plunged the world into a digital-first age, with many of us switching to an all-virtual way of working, socialising, and shopping. Even the age-old practice of worship has gone digital, providing online prayers and services.
In the business setting, this has been a watershed moment for digital transformation. 97 per cent of business decision-makers say that the pandemic has sped up digital transformation at their company. Specifically, survey findings indicate COVID-19 has shortened the timeline for digital communications strategies by around six years; companies in the construction and energy industry have seen the largest leap forward, with digital transformation timetables accelerated forward, on average, between seven and eight years. 1
In a landscape where so much is still uncertain, one aspect of the future can be guaranteed: leaders who revolutionise their business model and enter a core state of constant digital transformation (improving products, services, processes and ways of working) will succeed. Leaders who attempt to stand still and wait out the ‘digital-first storm’ will perish. Customer expectations will keep evolving as new ideas and technology advances; this is a certainty. The only way forward is into the digital age and companies need to transform and keep transforming to stay relevant.
The average amount by which COVID-19 has accelerated digital transformation timelines.
What digital transformation is (and isn’t!)
Despite the topic of digital transformation being a major topic over the past few years, its definition is remarkably elusive. One team of researchers found 28 academic papers offering 23 unique definitions, before ultimately offering their definition as “a process that aims to improve an entity by triggering significant changes to its properties through combinations of information, computing, communication, and connectivity technologies”. 
At Lane4, we prefer to go with the less wordy definition offered by MIT principal research scientist, George Westerman:
“Digital transformation marks a radical rethinking of how an organization uses technology, people and processes to fundamentally change business performance”
Alongside a clear definition of what digital transformation is, it’s also important leaders understand what it isn’t, namely:
- It’s not just about adding in new technology. Whilst in the last decade digital transformation often referred to a change in IT system, with decisions focused around what to migrate, where and when. There is increasing awareness that digital transformation goes way beyond technology, requiring a fundamentally different operating model and way of achieving performance.
- It’s not something that can be completed. Companies will make progress on their digital transformation journey, but, be under no illusions: this is not a one-off transformation to complete. Transforming to a digital age is a continual never-ending process of innovation. As technology continues to rapidly advance, customer expectations will continue to change, and businesses must continue to transform.
Digital transformation marks a radical rethinking of how an organization uses technology, people and processes to fundamentally change business performance.
Success or failure in this digital age will hinge on getting the people-side right
The reality of an ever-changing digital era is a daunting one. However, reassuringly the most common barriers in digital transformations relate to people and leadership.
Whether a company successfully transitions into this digital era will not depend on technology, but on the people factors which make the technology valuable and performance enhancing. Factors such as vision and culture, as well as people’s attitudes, behaviours and motivations.
At its core, digital transformation is about change. Many of the people and leadership challenges that will arise aren’t new and can be navigated with know-how. That’s why we interviewed ten change leaders to understand what makes a successful digital transformation. You can read the research in our Digital Transformation white paper.
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 Jay McCall (2020). COVID-19 Has Widespread, Overwhelming Impact on Digital Transformation. Article retrieved from: https://www.devprojournal.com/technology-trends/covid-19-has-widespread-overwhelming-impact-on-digital-transformation/
 IDG. (2018) The State of Digital Business Transformation. White paper, retrieved from: https://resources.idg.com/download/white-paper/2018-digital-business
 Vial, G. (2019). Understanding digital transformation: A review and a research agenda. The Journal of Strategic Information Systems, 28, 118-144.
 Kohnke, O. (2017). It’s not just about technology: The people side of digitization. In Shaping the digital enterprise (pp. 69-91). Springer, Cham.