Why am I not holding my breath on digital transformation ?


Once upon a time – when I was a young consultant – there was this thing my friends did called “change management”. I must have known more than a 100 change management consultants in my career – but I can count on one hand the number that stayed throughout the projects . Most were let go half way through by the customers .

If change is hard , change Management is harder . When a project has a budget cut – usually the axe fell on a change management consultant first . At one point in my career – I knew many consulting sales people who would add change management to a proposal , strictly as a way to take it off and make the deal look palatable to a customer !

If any term needed a rebranding – Change management was the one to beat . I have seen tens of CIOs roll their eyes if a vendor mentioned “change management” even in passing . And it became rebranded to “transformation” . The same people , the same methodology , more or less the same slides – but with a new name . It worked for a while before losing steam .

I – and customers – have asked the transformation experts on what is the difference between transformation and change management . The usual answer was along the lines of “it’s more strategic and modern” , or a smirk with “you don’t get it” .

Along the way came Hammer and Champy with Re-engineering . To match the theory to practice – ERP vendors and consulting companies started talking about “technology enabled transformation” as a new thing . Billions of dollars changed hands doing “as is” and “to be” analysis of businesses . And when that got ridiculous , some consulting companies and ERP vendors took a stance that “as is” didn’t matter any more and only “to be” mattered . This is the genesis of “best practices” and it’s CYA cousin “leading practices”.
Needless to say – I have hardly met a customer in three continents I worked in that was happy with “best practices”.

And off late , I started seeing a lot of buzz on “digital transformation” – and a bunch of repurposed power points . Sure there is a liberal dose of social, big data , predictive etc in the repurposed version , just like ERP and CRM were sprinkled on to all “technology enabled transformation” messages . I asked my old change management friends the “what is new” question – and they dutifully played back to me the “it’s more strategic and modern” line . I nodded and went my way .

And few minutes ago – my pal Jon Reed mentioned digital transformation on twitter and I had a snarky response . This post is just an extension of that . it’s all Jon’s fault 🙂

PS : I actually do think change management is a good thing and the rebranded naming is probably a minor issue that bothers only a few like me . Vast majority of projects fail – and I have seen it first hand – because customers don’t want to invest in it . And I have seen some top notch change management stuff helping customers enjoy big success .

Since it is a competitive market – vendors don’t push back on it when customers choose to ignore change management , even if they know customer will probably fail .

What is lacking in my opinion is good articulation to customers on why they should invest in it . Lofty messages doesn’t help once you pass senior leadership at CXO level . Would it be too recursive to say change management needs some change management ?

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23 thoughts on “Why am I not holding my breath on digital transformation ?

  1. Pingback: Effective change management amidst digital transformation – a keynote review – diginomica

  2. Pingback: Two major SAP user groups take landmark position on digital transformation – an inside look – diginomica

  3. The disconnect here is to categorize Digital Transformation simply as a generation shift in enterprise technology, comparable to the dawn of ERP or CRM etc. Digital Transformation is a societal shift that redefines activities and processes around the individual in a way that has never been possible before… and happening at a completely unprecedented pace. Whereas the logic on previous technology moves was “Do this because your competitors are all doing it / you will fall behind.” the current reality is “The world has changed. Not just the business world. Adapt quickly or die.”

    Yes, if you pitch it as “the next big thing. just run an engagement with me and we’ll sort you out” you do a disservice to yourself and the company. That is the equivalent of going to a farmer in 1850 and saying “Let me Industrial Revolutionize your business.” You’re just selling him a bunch of… fertilizer.

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  4. Thanks Vijay for the article and Esteban, Michael and Vijay for the great conversation.
    As far as Change Vs Transformation is concerned, I think there is a subtle difference William Bridges explains in his book Mangaing Transitions : change is situational while transition is psychological.

    Regarding why it is different now, I can see 2 items to add in that column. First, since 2007 and the advent of iPhone and the massive adoption of Facebook/Twitter, for the first time, public IT system have been more powerful and integrated than the ones we were using in our organizations. Enterprise IT Systems have to catch up, especially as we all have developed digital literacy. Getting things done using ERP, outlook, a CRM, ETL or (God Forbid) SOA is no longer an option in a time where just adding a #in tag in a tweet allow to post articles across different platforms.

    The second point is that there are companies that are born digital. The famous Amazon, Google, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn etc … embody the value of the digital company. There have never been a born-CRM (one might say Salesforce but I rather see them as born digital as they’re on the cloud) or Born-ERP, or (God Forbid) born SOA company that has became an instant hit and a multi billion worth company. In other word, there has never been a such clear picture of the target destination, it is not daydream, it is the brutal reality. Amazon release new software every 11 seconds. Best IT departments around release every 3 months : this is the gap. These companies develop new software products within weeks (cf Zappo) while regular IT organization takes 18 months to integrate SAP. 17 months gap : there is a massive issue here. If you want to see the digital transformation imagine Larry Page and Serguey Brin asking Accenture and IBM to develop nd implement their search engine back in 96 . It still wouldn’t been released.

    Digital transformation is not an option. My 2 cents.

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  5. Oh. Boy.

    A well reasoned post relying in an antiquated stance (“nothing ever changes”). Never thought I’d see this from you.

    I have written tons. Explained it tons. And talked to many executives. The short answer to why now? Because in the past 5-7 years he amount of digital assets generated grew by magnitudes inconceivable (so large we devised a term for it – “big data”) and the ability to process it went up with it.

    What we couldn’t do 30, 20, or even 10 years ago it is done in near real time now.

    Doesn’t that require a retooling and (gulp) even change management to be applied?

    This time is different because the playing field and the outcomes are different.

    Of course. That is just he short version of the answer. For the long version I’d need to be typing from something better than an iPad (or creating more digital assets on the fly, literally as I am sitting in an airplane typing this over wifi while flying 30,000+ feet above the earth – which was almost impossible a few years ago… See the diff? Multiply it times 4+ billion consumers. Notice the difference between then and now? That’s the digital prefix to transformation….)

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    • Sure technology is transforming a lot of stuff now – just as it was transforming a lot of stuff 10 years ago too . And every single time – the message has been “it’s different now”.
      And it is true – each successive step is different given technology advances .

      Technology will accelerate all the time – but most business takes lot of extra time to adopt . That is how it was for EDI , ERP and CRM just to pick a few examples . They were all sold with the same transformation message .

      I am not fighting the need to transform – I am only fighting the hype around “NOW” . Transformation is a continuum – I don’t see the value in extra hype for a point in time .

      Hype only harms progress – 5 years ago SOA was the hype , now it is big data and IOT . I have lost count of number of customers who want a big data project today even though they have no idea what it should do for them . It’s more or less the same experience I had when ERP and CRM were hyped and unrealistic expectations set .

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      • Especially among consultants and analysts, “digital transformation” is the latest convenient bandwagon. Every new gravy train starts with puffed-up expectations, which Gartner calls the Hype Cycle. Nonetheless, some shifts are genuinely powerful and will be long lasting, and I believe that is the case here.

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      • You’re half making a point.

        CRM, ERP, etc were roll ups of evolution. Digital transformation is the same. When CRM was first launched (and ERP and others) people also said we don’t need this evolutionary step. We have the technology to make the little changes we need. They were wrong then, and it took 5+ years to prove it. Look at the amount of change since the internet in late 1990s. Look at how many companies embraced all those changes somehow. How many need to do it now?

        Roll up steps are what make it work by aggregating all the technology from the past 10-15 years into one consumable initiative.

        Hype is always there. But ignoring the step and calling it hype when it has the markings of being an rollup step is being the old guy yelling at kids to get of the lawn! 🙂

        I get your point. And technology and business is iterative. But you won’t stop this rollup step from happening. Sorry.

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      • I am not stopping the roll up – just saying the hype will only slow it down . History has proven that again and again . SOA happened in real projects only after people stopped hyping it .

        But i think we are generally in agreement , right ?

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      • We won’t be until you take it back 🙂

        Hype is always there. Saying it is there and not to listen to it is what slows things down.

        The diff between saying it’s there, ignore it and saying it’s there, be careful is progress.

        That’s the part were we disagree. Your post says stop instead of be careful to me. Take it back and we are In agreement. 🙂

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      • Not taking it back – I think you are justifying hype , which I am fundamentally opposed to . I do respect your right to differ though 🙂

        The way I look at this – hype has always either stopped progress or killed an idea . Never seen hype accelerate progress . And reality 5 years later never matched the hype

        CRM for example promised many things – as did ERP . How many customers benefited from it after implementation ? Not many – and several tried multiple times . A lot of that grief could have been minimized if proper expectations were set instead of hype

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      • I’m sorry. Thats ridiculous.

        I don’t justify hype. I acknowledge it and make risk-aversion plans around it. When did I justify hype? When did I say that?

        And the diff between before CRM and now for most people is monumental (I was not around for the initial erp – cannot comment on 30-40 years ago) and the early adopters more than benefitted versus late adopters who waited until it was all figured out.

        You are saying they should all be late adopters (or mainstream at worse) but without early adopters using it during the hype there would be no mainstream. Or late adopters.

        Your are among a wrong argument, well reasoned by your standards, an dose are the ones hat delay progress. Someone need to take a calculated risk and jump in first so we can learn what works and what doesn’t.

        Those are the early adopters that jump in during hype times. I say go for it, with risk aversion as part of it. And that is part of change management also… But that is another discussion. Which ex can have when you acknowledge that change management is not digital transformation (or viceversa)

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      • if all you want is an early adopter , why even make a big fuss about it before they use it and learn from it ?

        I did not say anywhere that no one should jump into something new . There are always pioneers – many are like the guy with the bugle who walks into battlefield and gets shot at and killed . Some succeed and keep a competitive advantage . Vast majority of customers I have met have been people who have burnt themselves multiple times and hence tune out when they hear hyped messages .

        The advantages CRM or ERP brought might be monumental compared to the world before it . But it is an absolute molehill in my opinion compared to the promises made during its hyped days .

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      • The fuss is that you have a voice that is heard. And you saying don’t do it carries weight. You don’t see me replying to every Dick, Tom, and Harry out here saying the same you at saying – right?

        It’s the person, not the message I’m debating.

        Not matter how much I debate the message it will be out there. Not going to change minds or eliminate hype. I just want to manage hype.

        This is about the person and the medium – a breeding ground for hype and anti-hype.

        Now that my point is here and it can be read – and I am right and you’re wrong, of course – wassup bud?

        🙂

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      • Ha – ok . Now I clearly understand the issue is the messenger not the message . I am flattered – and I am not kidding – that you think my opinion matters . I am standing down right away 🙂

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  6. Well, i wouldn’t say “Digital Transformation” is just a new phrase for Change Management or as you said for the “Transformation”. A carefully planned digital transformation would need a perfect “executable” change management to reap it’s benefit. Since the early days of computing , what we all are trying to do, is to “do things” digital way. Be it: doing social interaction – digital way, playing games without the playing field or even issuing stock transport orders ( oh yes…i worked in those areas too :)) without a piece of paper. Now in all these examples, one could conceptualize the digital transformation (aka games on internet…facebook ways of social interaction etc..) on a PPT but how effective these changes are executed (& ACCEPTED BY USERS) to impact the existing “process” , determines the success of digital transformation.

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  7. Digital transformation is real, especially for industries experiencing forced disruption. Consider media as a great example — the transformation of newspapers is happening out of necessity for those folks. That said, not too many people or companies decide to disrupt themselves without some external force or requirement.

    The phrase digital transformation, however, has become a catch-all of meaninglessness. As I talk with senior execs from a range of companies, it’s clear that everyone defines it their own way and to suit their own purposes.

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