Why people love to hate "digital transformation"

Why people love to hate "digital transformation"

In some organizations, "digital transformation" has become the ultimate set of dirty words. It makes some leaders cringe and others spit fire. Why is this happening – and how can you speak on this topic without getting burned?

385 readers like this

My client eyed me nervously.

 “It’s not that I have any problem with that phrase. But…it seems to make this group of leaders a little crazy and sometimes they even get angry. I just don’t want that noise in the meeting….

…is there any way you could not say, ‘digital transformation?’”

Not the first time I’d heard it. Or the third. Or the hundredth.

A shocking proportion of leaders want no part of any conversation where that phrase might come up.

In some organizations today, the seemingly innocuous phrase “digital transformation” is the ultimate set of dirty words. It makes some leaders cringe and others spit fire. And a shocking proportion of leaders want no part of any conversation where that phrase might come up.

Let’s look at why this is happening.

The first problem is the word "digital"

What’s wrong with “digital?”

Well, looking up “digital” on Wikipedia provides the perfect answer. It leads you to a disambiguation page that then links to more than 30 other Wiki pages.

Plain English: “Digital” means a lot of things to a lot of people.

It can refer to anything from a set of technologies to a very amorphous collection of beliefs about how people should work in the future.  

Say “digital” to one person and they think of going paperless; another might think of data analytics and artificial intelligence; another might picture Agile teams; and yet another might think of open-plan offices (and start fuming– the open-plan backlash is real!)

“Digital” is a hot mess of a word. And this causes a lot of grief in organizations.

Imagine ordering a hamburger over and over, and getting everything from a hot dog to a chicken sandwich to a Caesar salad.

Imagine ordering a hamburger over and over, and getting everything from a hot dog to a chicken sandwich to a Caesar salad to an inflatable beach ball to an invitation to an art show to a juggling mime…

The lack of clarity is crazy-making. In organizations already struggling with alignment around a complex issue, a lack of common meaning for a common term quickly moves from infuriating to completely derailing.

Meaning isn’t the only tripwire, though.

Depending on how you define “digital,” the issue may have different owners within an organization (IT, Marketing, the CEO & Board, etc) – causing political battles that go far beyond linguistic clarity.  The broadness or narrowness of how “digital” is defined also shapes how much budget is needed to address the issue, deepening the political soup around the term.

[ Read also: Digital vs. digitized: Why CIOs must help companies do both. ]

So “digital” is a tar pit of a word, and getting worse by the minute.

Putting “digital” into Google produces nearly 9 BILLION hits. We’re all a little tired of hearing it…

…and then we add "transformation"

I don’t know if there’s an official worst word in business, but “transformation” might be it.

Don’t get me wrong: the underlying idea of transformation – that there might be a better way of working out there – is hugely worth pursuing. (It’s the “red thread” of my own career.)

But oh my gosh, are we all sick of hearing about transformation.

Part of the problem is the word itself.

As I wrote a few months ago, evoking the image of magic to describe a process that can be bone-grindingly difficult is at best disingenuous, and at worst a deliberate distortion straight out of George Orwell’s 1984.

But a bigger part of the problem is our historical experience of transformation.

You've been through this before a time or 10

If you’ve been in the working world long enough, you’ve been through a transformation or two. Maybe 5. Maybe 10.

And many of those transformations…didn’t go according to plan.

[ Read also: 7 hard truths about digital transformation. ]

I once worked for an organization that decided to transform two divisions by combining Division A with Division B. The logic was smart – the divisions largely shared a customer base, and could achieve great economies of scale on technology investment.

Leadership teamed up. We made videos. We had joint happy hours. Everyone got new business cards.

And then, just as the efforts to really achieve synergy were culminating, the organization undid the Division A/Division B combo…and merged Division B with Division C.


According to the data, some degree of success is achieved in about a third of transformations – leaving 50-60 percent in a grey area between glory and doom.

Now, the chestnut about “70 percent of transformations fail” has been nicely debunked – this well-researched HBR article puts the proportion of completely failed transformations closer to one-tenth. According to the data, some degree of success is achieved in about a third of transformations – leaving 50-60 percent in a grey area between glory and doom.

As human beings, though, we experience these “grey area” transformations as more negative than positive. Leadership may have successfully completed 2 out of 10 objectives, let’s say, but to the average employee those achievements are generally invisible in the context of the disruption the transformation process wrought.

Here come the eye rolls...

In other words, the “70 percent of transformations fail” myth has persisted because we experience around 70 percent of transformations as failures – even if that is not technically true at all.

Two consequences result:

1.   Every time I speak on the digital topic, what seems to be the same guy a few rows back in the audience makes the same comment:

 “HOW IS DIGITAL DIFFERENT FROM DOT-COMS? HOW IS THIS DIFFERENT FROM LEAN SIX SIGMA? HOW IS THIS DIFFERENT FROM BUSINESS PROCESS RE-ENGINEERING?” (As you may be able to tell from the capital letters, this guy is kind of yelling, every time.)

2.   A generation of executives with everything from wariness to open hostility about the term “transformation.”

Quick recap then: we’re sick of hearing about “digital,” and we’re sick of hearing about “transformation.”

No wonder “digital transformation” produces so much eye-rolling.

So why don't we stop saying it?


Hilarious but unfortunately

Hilarious but unfortunately so true. Great article!!

Good article and fun to read.

Good article and fun to read. As for a suggestion / alternative to the term "digital transformation" how about "applied innovation"? Of course the word innovation is also loaded. We need a term that expresses a smart and thoughtful effort to bring about a change that dives a meaningful benefit for a business by leveraging technology and the latest best practices.

As a male over 50, I get a

As a male over 50, I get a yearly physical. When I am getting one type of examination, the word digit (as in finger) has a much different meaning. So using the word digital seems like a less than ideal word to describe a technology update (that's a much better expression IMHO...) Someone pointed out that the word digital is so 1980's/1990's.
This is a really well written article and good argument. I just disagree with the conclusions. Thanks!

Your "debunked" 70% failure

Your "debunked" 70% failure rate, is probably a matter of rounding. You're saying 1/3 succeed, then saying that's a 50-60% failure rate. Actually, the 2/3 failure would be closer to 66%, which readily rounds up to 70%. Add on top of that the possibility that the percentage of failures might actually *be* between 50-60%, which someone then made a shorthand "1/3 success" rate statement of.

It's a matter of how one states the numbers, etc. Steve Savitzky did a song on the IT/management distortion of reporting up the chain (kind of like the game "telephone") https://lyrics.fandom.com/wiki/Steve_Savitzky:Mushrooms

thank you very much for this

thank you very much for this nice and informative post. to be honest, i was planning to write about this topic and i intend to post a link to this wonderful article once i have it done. i learned myself few other things i never thought about. the highlights for me is that the word digital which is playing a prominent role in any firm and the transformation has achieved more in this article.

kind regards:
Pruthvi [www.factocert.com]


Melissa Swift leads Korn Ferry’s Digital Transformation Advisory for North America and Global Accounts.

7 New CIO Rules of Road

CIOs: We welcome you to join the conversation

Related Topics

Submitted By Tiffany Jachja
January 15, 2021

As conferences and meetings went virtual in 2020, we've learned a lot about what makes them successful. Consider this  advice when planning your next digital gathering

Submitted By James Mora
January 14, 2021

Want to  improve your processes and customer experience? Consider this three-pronged digital transformation strategy, which taps the power of analytics, automation, and teamwork.

Submitted By Jason Hall
January 14, 2021

An engaged, motivated team is a productive team. Consider these strategies to ensure that your team members feel valued


Email Capture

Keep up with the latest thoughts, strategies, and insights from CIOs & IT leaders.