Digital Transformation vs Digital Evolution

Why we should stop talking about digital transformation and start talking about digital evolution

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I have never liked the term “digital transformation.” It’s always seemed to me to be the epitome of consultant speak- a sweeping, grandiose statement designed to sell a vague but enticing vision of the future.

I am, however, guilty of using it. After all it’s reasonably obvious that the new digital era we have entered requires a different way of doing business. Businesses do need to change, and we do need a way to describe that change – so why not “transformation?”

The problem with the word “transformation” is that it implies that there’s an end state.

The problem with the word “transformation” is that it implies that, much like a caterpillar transforming into a butterfly, there’s a final form, an end state at which point the business’ transformation is complete.

There isn’t.

Perhaps in the past, when the rates of change in technology and business were slower, it made sense to aim for the finish line. Back then, businesses could hang back, watch where the rest of the industry was going, and then catch up. Not anymore. We are now in an age where the rate of change is so rapid that the finish line is constantly shifting. We are now in an age where (to adapt something Aaron Dignan once said), your business strategy can’t be built to last- it has to be built to evolve.

You may be thinking that I’m making a mountain out of a small, semantic mole hill, but the distinction is important. Choosing to transform your business implies an entirely different mindset to evolution.

To transform, a business must undergo a complete organisation-wide change. This is an enormous undertaking- one that requires substantial time, money and discipline. More often than not the process involves transformation consultants and experts, the creation of detailed strategies, and many years of planning and execution. In the best case scenario, these transformations eventually take place, only for the business to find that the world has already moved on.

The great irony of these digital transformations is that they’re completely at odds with the end state that the business is trying to achieve. If the goal is to emerge from the transformation as an agile, adaptable digital butterfly, why start the process with a process-heavy, waterfall strategy?

The successful businesses of the future are not sprinting for the transformation finish line, because they know that it doesn’t exist.

The successful businesses of the future are not sprinting for the transformation finish line, because they know that it doesn’t exist. Instead, they’re equipping themselves for the race. They’re developing the skills and mindsets that they will need to learn and adapt constantly. They’re not investing millions of dollars in transformation strategies and governance structures, because they know they’ll be outdated almost immediately. Instead, they’re taking a steady, iterative approach, transforming team-by-team, person-by-person. The absence of a finish line means the absence of the frenzied urgency that is driving the “transformation boom.” For organisations that embrace evolution, the process is more measured, more organic and thus more sustainable. The process of adapting to the future becomes business as usual, instead of a task to be completed before getting back to the “real work.”

So, the time has come to give the word “transformation” a well-deserved break. Instead, let’s embrace “digital evolution” and all that it implies about how we approach the future.

At Pixel Fusion, we have some thoughts on how businesses can evolve successfully- keep an eye out for my next few posts which will dig into some principles for sustainable digital evolution.