Where’s the digital in the digital transformation

digitalBy the end on 2013 I mentioned the growing importance of digital transformation programs that don’t aim at making people use technology but creating the right context for a way of managing and working that may (or not) be supported by technology.

But before what will certainly be one of this year’s big buzzword takes off, I invite you to think about where digital lies in the transformation in question in order not to walk straight in a wall and make the same mistakes than in the past.

Digital is – mainly – the cause of the transformation

Before I specifically address the digital transformation, let’s a a look at its causes. They are many. higgledy-piggledy : business models transformation from products to solutions, physical products that becomes a part of a service proposal, empowerment of the connected customers that requires a reinvented customer relationship management, acceleration and complexification of the world in general and the economy in particular that make exceptions become the rule and require to rethink our highly standardized operation models, digitization of our lives that are more and more connected, of our actions and objects that produce lots of data we need to use and draw value from….

As many reasons that force to rethink work, operation models and, logically, the context in which they happen. And require, if necessary, the use of the proper technologies.

But these reasons are not really new. From the carrier pigeon to the phone, including mail, from horses to planes, we’ve always tried to speed up our work and lives. Customers have always want to be informed, heard and get the level of service they thought they deserved. Businesses have always tried to maximize the value brought to customers and, by the way, to their shareholders, by articulating physical products and service delivery. We’ve long been aware of the value of information, insights and the understanding of how the parts of a complex system were influencing each others.

What changed everything was “digital”, or, to be more specific, the ability to interact continuously, instantly, regardless to location, through organized or informal flows, between individuals, individuals and machines and even from machine to machine. Until our digital practices reached a critical mass, old operation models were able, willy-nilly, to cope with digitization by makeshift fixes and improvisation. The reach of this critical mass was te tipping point that made us fall in a world were our models needed to be reinvented. Digital was one of the drivers of complexification by making interactions more numerous, work faster and at scale (not to be mistaken  with complication, which is the fruit of human “talent”).

What is new is not the trends but “speed-scale-complexity” tryptic made possible by digitization. In some ways the current and coming transformations will be digital, at least because of their cause.

The aim of digital transformation is not technology

Once dealt with the “why” question, let’s look at the “what”. Some logic would suggest that digital causes imply digital responses. If technology made us tip “on the other side”,  it would logically help us to move in this new world. With hindsight it’s everything but obvious.

Look at what happened with “enterprise 2.0″ or “Social Business”. The technology that fits the best in a new context is not enough, alone, to be successful in this context. Dying enterprise social networks kept alive with artificial breathing apparatus, customer engagement approaches that backfire and cause misunderstanding, awkward use of data that lead to customer and employee mistrust… We had enough evidences that tools are nothing but tools and that their bad use leads to bad practices… I talked about speed and scale in a previous paragraph : a bad use of digital helps to things wrong but faster and at a larger scale than if one did not use digital.

If fact digital didn’t make us reach the tipping point. It was how we used it. So the response won’t come from technology but from the way we use it. Such a commonplace if we don’t understand what it implies : a proper use of digital don’t come from desire and common sense but from the individual and collective context framework in which digital is used.

A wrong use of digital helps to do as wrong as before but faster and at scale

Simply put :  enterprise social networks won’t solve problems caused by bad resource allocation, processes, decision making and lack of delegation. A Facebook page won’t be of any help if your product is bad and your brand detestable. Big Data is useless if not used to make decisions, if your employees have no autonomy in front of the customer. The best MOOC platform won’t teach anyone anything if you don’t question your learning process, its players and their roles.

What conclusion can we draw ? Digital transformation is a matter of context, of framework. If people massively adopt social media while the social media adoption declines in organizations there must be a reason : it’s a matter of model and structure. Having the right skills, the right organization, the right management model, rethink operations, activities and processes with new eyes. Tactical implementation may need technology, digital, but the big thing is elsewhere. As a matter of fact we can see organizations with digital behaviors and very little technology or others that are always early adopters. Digital is a way to think one’s business, activities, value creation before being about technology. Businesses must not transform to use technology but use technology because of a successful transformation.

Businesses must not transform to use technology but use technology because of a successful transformation.

So digital transformation is human first because technology is used by people in a managerial and human context they build upon their beliefs and vision. Its primary purpose should not be technology adoption but the creation of a context where technology makes sense provided this context is justified by the reality of the market and society.

Digital transformation is not an umpteenth way to free oneself from having to reinvent businesses. It has lots of HR consequences.

The only thing digital in digital transformation is the nae and the cause. It’s a transformation before all and will be led by and with people through the way they design and organize their work according to the context. It’s a matter of skills, postures, know-how, process redesign, role redefinition.

The less one will care about technology in the digital transformation process the most he’ll made out of the available technology. Today we can see the limit of the consumerization of the workplace and work practices : contrary to what happens on the consumer web, the slow factor in digital business transformation is not technology but people. And people act according to the system they work in.