Digital transformation: What nobody tells you about innovation in your company

"Transformation" seems to be the buzzword du jour; however, it's not all rainbows and unicorns. Sometimes the transformation journey can be a challenge.

Head shot serious puzzled African American businessman looking at laptop

Image: fizkes, Getty Images/iStockphoto

As a species, we humans seem to abhor stasis. We're always striving for change, whether that's a change in location, appearance, outlook, or view of the world. 

Generally, we're looking for positive outcomes, but huge industries around gambling, entertainment, and assorted vices would imply that even the risk of negative outcomes is not enough to dissuade us from seeking some sort of transformation, irrespective of the cost.

Businesses, being composed of a collection of people, also seem to be driven toward change. Aside from the human factors at work, history has enough examples of companies that steadfastly refused to face challenges, change, and adapt to the world around them, and quickly became irrelevant and failed. It's little wonder that companies are constantly seeking to transform themselves, and as technology leaders, digital transformation is likely front-of-mind as we plan our long-term transformation strategy and interact with our colleagues from other parts of the business.

SEE: Special report: Managing artificial intelligence and machine learning in the enterprise (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Rainbows and unicorns in your transformation strategy?

The topic of digital transformation in business and technology has spawned a great deal of excitement, to the point that it's plastered on airport billboards—and vendors from high-end consulting businesses to the company that restocks the break room snack machine are promising that their wares will aid in whatever digital transformation efforts you, the customer, are contemplating. There's a sense of excitement around digital transformation business initiatives, as they're often billed as positioning the company for greatness and involve all manner of compelling customer technology buzzwords from artificial intelligence and machine learning to virtual reality

It's easy to see a digital transformation business strategy as a fun-filled ride into the future and envision the onslaught of high-fives when new technology (and the associated technology leader) have repositioned the company for change, growth and becoming a digital business. Reading the marketing pitch on digital transformation, it's easy to assume that you buy the right technology and perhaps some services, and after a few months, you arrive in the land of rainbows and unicorns.

What's often left out of these stories are two salient facts. First, technology by itself has rarely transformed a business. Kodak invented many of the core technologies for digital photography, but chose to shelve them for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was a concern about cannibalizing its core business. The DVD was a widely available technology, but using it to create a novel business model of sending movies by mail helped Netflix-- with its super-easy customer experience--overtake video giant Blockbuster, who clung to its store-based ways.

SEE: Digital transformation road map (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Secondly, and the underlying reason that the Kodaks and Blockbusters of the world failed, is that true transformation is messy, difficult, and a particularly lonely endeavor for a leader in an existing organization. Organizations are very similar to people in this regard. If you've ever lost weight, tackled a significant physical challenge, or kicked a bad habit, you likely experienced more challenging days than days of smooth sailing. 

You probably thought of giving up dozens of times, and perhaps even succumbed to that little voice in your head telling you to just give up and take the easier road. In the typical business, you might find yourself the sole voice advocating digital transformation in the midst of hundreds or even thousands of people who have built a career and supported a family performing a set of activities well. Rather than the bearer of glad tidings, your message will be perceived as an attack on their very livelihoods and attacked with the vigor and violence of a living organism fighting off a deadly virus.

The transformation fork in the road: Challenge and innovation

 As you consider your organization's digital transformation strategy, realize that you'll eventually find yourself at a proverbial fork in the road. On one hand, there's likely a "safe" option that's been played out at companies for decades: plastering an exciting new term on what's ultimately a good old-fashioned process improvement effort. If you've been around for a while, you've likely seen this in everything from TQM (Total Quality Management) to Six Sigma and BPM ( Business Process Management ). On the technology side, just about every software package, from artificial intelligence to ERP ( Enterprise Resource Planning ) that promises "transformation" likely optimizes and streamlines existing processes. There's nothing inherently wrong with process improvement and optimization, but these efforts are often billed as "transformational" when it's really a way for vendors to apply a veneer of innovation to something that's been done for decades.

SEE: Digital transformation road map (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

The other path is a truly transformational effort that significantly changes the organization's products, target customers, customer experience, long-term strategy, organizational structure, or some combination of all of the above. The outcomes of this digital transformation strategy are usually uncertain, and rather than a litany of case studies and vendor "quals" that you'd find in the first path, there are hunches and indicators. 

On this innovation path, the rewards are massive: you may quite literally redefine your industry and allow your company to become the next Netflix or LEGO. However, the costs and challenges are extremely high, and the personal load you'll bear as an individual should not be underestimated. Make no mistake that you'll be fighting an uphill battle as you try to disrupt, change, and rally leaders up to, and likely including, the CEO and board of your business to your cause.

Choose your path wisely.

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By Patrick Gray

Patrick Gray works for a leading global professional services firm, where he helps companies rapidly invent and launch new businesses. He is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companio...