16 October, 2023

The evolution of digital transformation: Then vs. now



16 October, 2023

The evolution of digital transformation: Then vs. now

The evolution of digital transformation: Then vs. now

Digital transformation (DX) has come a long way from just being a flashy corporate buzzword. Nowadays, it’s become the cornerstone of modern business strategy, completely changing how companies operate and provide value to their customers. And while digital transformation strategies have been gradually gaining popularity over the past decade, their origins go back much further than that. 

You could say it all started with the introduction of computer-aided design and manufacturing tools back in the late 1970s. This was a total game-changer in many industries at the time. Then in the ’80s, enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems came along and gave organisations new integrated management capabilities. Moving into the ’90s, customer relationship management (CRM) emerged as a way to transform customer interactions and service. 

Looking back, the evolution of digital transformation has been nothing short of amazing. It’s gone from consisting of simple tools and technologies to an essential, multifaceted omnichannel approach that touches practically every aspect of business operations.  

The evolution of digital transformation messaging: A decade of change 

Over the past ten years, the business world has witnessed a profound shift in the messaging surrounding digital transformation. The narrative has organically evolved in new directions, taking on more nuanced perspectives as companies continue to unlock greater strategic value from digital capabilities. Let’s take a quick journey through the past decade (or so) to see the changes in how organisations have approached DX. 

The woes of the digital checklist 

Let’s rewind back to the early 2010s when the term “digital transformation” started to pick up pace within the popular business lexicon. At that time, the focus was primarily technological – adopting cloud computing, leveraging Big Data, and exploring social media. The prevailing narrative was centred on the deployment of emerging digital capabilities and tools. 

While many companies managed to identify and implement relevant technologies, the power of hindsight allows us to see this approach was fragmented rather than holistic.  

As such, digital transformation was often treated as a checklist of initiatives rather than an integrated strategy. This limited perspective assumed that new tech alone would enable meaningful transformation. 

In reality, this early tech-centric view merely laid the foundations. While it highlighted the expanding digital capabilities available to businesses, the deeper evolution of both strategic messaging and implementation was still to come. 

The rise of the integrated approach 

But as time passed, the narrative started to shift. Around the mid-2010s, some pioneers realised digital transformation wasn’t just about plugging in new technologies. It was about weaving them together into a seamless digital environment. This marked a move away from a fragmented perspective to a more holistic outlook. 

Remember when connecting your CRM to your email platform felt like a huge breakthrough? That marked the start of the integrated approach clicking into place. Companies saw that just “having” new tech wasn’t enough – it was crucial to integrate it in a way that drove real value.  

User experience (UX) also moved front and centre during this time. Instead of “What tools do we have?” it became “How can these tools improve our users’ experience?” UX designers became critical players, translating tech capabilities into tangible user benefits for customers. 

Strategies expanded from merely deploying shiny new tools to thoughtfully integrating them to enhance the overall digital environment. This integration enabled even greater benefits than the sum of the individual parts. 

A shift in core objectives 

By the late 2010s, the core goals behind digital transformation were changing too. At first, it was mainly about streamlining operations and boosting productivity. But then, businesses started recognising its huge potential to open up new revenue streams, reach new markets, and enable innovative models. 

For example, companies like Netflix and Square leveraged digital capabilities to successfully disrupt their respective industries during this time. Netflix transitioned from mailing DVDs to pioneering on-demand video streaming, while Square transformed mobile payments through its reader hardware and software ecosystem. 

As such, digital transformation expanded from a narrow focus on efficiency to encompass more strategic aspirations of entering new digital markets and spaces. Digital transformation became linked to long-term business strategy rather than just incremental improvements. 

The role of external catalysts 

Of course, no discussion of digital transformation would be complete without mentioning the catalytic impact of Covid. The global health crisis made clear that digital maturity was no longer just about competitive edge, but business resilience and continuity. Seemingly overnight, companies across industries scrambled to implement technologies like video conferencing, e-commerce, and cloud computing just to remain operational.  

The pandemic provided undeniable proof that digital transformation had become an imperative, accelerating its adoption by years practically overnight. While already underway, Covid showcased digital transformation as a vitally important lifeline enabling organisations to navigate external disruption. It cemented digital capability as a core competency of operational resilience. 

Embracing a digital culture 

Today, conversations embrace not just tech and revenue, but culture. Companies realise that for digital transformation to truly succeed, a digital-first mindset must be woven into the organisational culture itself.  

This means not just upskilling technically, but reshaping mindsets, enabling agility, encouraging experimentation, and nurturing a culture of learning and innovation. The narrative has expanded again from processes and systems to human skills and behaviours. Having the right technical building blocks is no longer enough – a supportive culture is essential for transformation to take root. 

A digital culture shift entails giving employees permission to think beyond legacy constraints. It requires leaders who are able to envision and spearhead change even when the way forward is unclear. Change management and communication skills become paramount. A culture embracing autonomy, innovation, flexibility, and growth mindsets lays the foundation. 

This cultural emphasis reflects how people ultimately drive transformation. Providing digital skills training is important but does not guarantee adoption. Employees must be inspired and empowered to put emerging tools to use in creative ways. A culture rigidly fixed in the status quo will hinder progress. As culture and mindsets are harder to change than technology, companies must focus attention here to capitalise on digital potential. Leadership commitment and messaging that conveys urgency, but also care for people impacted, are key. 

How we can help 

Digital transformation demands a holistic approach spanning strategy, technology, culture and leadership. But there’s no one-size-fits-all roadmap. Real transformation happens when all the pieces come together in a strategy tailored to each organisation – and we get that. 

For decades, we’ve helped organisations navigate complex transformations as partners, not vendors. Our team brings deep experience across industries and domains. We combine proven yet flexible frameworks with custom plans based on each client’s unique needs and vision. 

Whether you need help with strategy, culture change, technology implementation, or anything in between, we collaborate closely to understand your specific environment. Then we craft a custom solution to make your vision a reality. Get in touch with our team today so we can talk about where you are – and, more importantly, where you hope to go. 

Simon Harvey
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