I’ve worked in the world of tech for over two decades now and the only constant is that our industry loves three things in equal measure: a buzzword, silver bullet and an acronym.

The problem with buzzwords, is that the true potential of the technology quickly loses its meaning. Look at the word – and its various iterations – innovation.  If you aren’t innovating then you’re not an innovator and everyone these days is innovative. But are they? If everyone is innovative, then who are the true pioneers? In this situation, no-one is a winner. Innovators are a big, indistinguishable homogenous mass.

The term, digital transformation, is in danger of suffering a similar fate (a problem for someone with it in their job title like me). From farming through to pharma, every business is reportedly in this midsts of a digital transformation. The risk here is that digital transformation is becoming a catch-all term, applied to all forms of ‘digital’ technologies. For example farmers in the US tapping into and benefitting from the Farmers Business Network – described by the Financial Times as ‘Google for famers’ – is individuals using digital technologies to transform their business. But it is not digital transformation.

You could argue that the difference is akin to splitting hairs. And perhaps you’d be right, but there is a difference – and no matter however nuanced that difference is – it’s a distinct one. By bounding digital transformation around, the risk is that we devalue it because people no longer understand what it really means and the potential it can deliver. That’s especially true of the c-suite.

Defining digital transformation

So, let’s take a step back. What do we actually mean by digital transformation? Rather unhelpfully it can mean a lot of different things to lots of different people. For some it’s all about ripping legacy infrastructure and replacing it with cloud-based platforms, whereas for other businesses it’s about a shift in mindset and culture.

I’d argue it’s a case of all three. Digital transformation, for my money, goes way beyond ripping out legacy IT. I’ve seen many longwined explanations of digital transformation but to me success comes down to the tried and tested triangle of people, processes and technology – one is not optimised without the the other two. And it’s the same for digital transformation:

    People – tech has to be intuitive, generate an engaging user experience and above all make the job easier. If its not, employees will find a work around. That’s what makes culture so critically important – digital transformation is a journey. People need to understand the end destination, why it’s important, how you’re going to get there and the role that they have to play.

    Processes – without the right processes in place, the tech won’t work. You’ve got to understand the dependencies between platforms, servers, apps, data and delivery channels. There is no point in having a shiny self-service app, if the back end isn’t supported and well mapped out processes.

    Technology – this is really important because all too often blueprints for business transformation projects are rooted in the enterprise companies of today – not the businesses they need to be tomorrow or in ten years’ time – so they are anchored by the technical debt of the past. Tech is evolving at an incredible pace, so it’s vital the the foundations laid now can embrace and support new technologies as they emerge.

Bringing all of this together means that every second of a customer journey is reflected in real-time in your systems allowing you to become 100% customer centric – that’s true digital transformation in my book,

Driving and underpinning all of this is of course, data. Information and insights are the lifeblood of any company, big or small. How you harness them in order to become more efficient, more relevant, more agile and more competitive is key. Data is the glue that binds people, processes and technology. How it flows between people, fuels processes and is used within technology platforms is the bedrock of digital transformation success. Data feeds the senses of your organisations, without it, your systems are blind, deaf and dumb.

Equally, it’s important to realise that digital transformation is not an out-of-the-box solution. There is no one-size-fits-all. Every single company is unique and therefore so will its requirements. For one business it could be moving its business to mobile and internet-based channels, for another it could be using cloud platforms to transform their supply chain.

Digital transformation has the power and potential to change a business. To make it more adaptive, competitive and efficient, but only if it is rooted in sound business strategy. Therefore, we need to showcase what it can achieve and let those achievements speak for themselves rather than adding superlatives and hype. Why? This doesn’t do the tech industry – or the very businesses we’re looking to help – any favours at all. It creates confusion, eye rolling and business leaders switch off. And in doing so they could be facing their own Kodak moment, opening the door to a competitor or inadvertently sidelining themselves in the marketplace.

Let’s be open and honest about what digital transformation is (or should I say DX), and what it is not, because if we are then we can reinvigorate a fatigued C-suite and give companies the athleticism they need to compete in a fierce and unpredictable world economy.