"Digital transformation" has worn out its welcome with some. Why? As a general term that can be applied to any digital strategy, it’s often misunderstood and overused.
Part of the problem is that it’s too broad. Digital can mean a variety of things, depending on how it’s perceived. It’s up to individual companies to define exactly what digital transformation means to them. And employees need to understand why it’s necessary to not only get on board but to be excited about it. This can only happen with a full understanding of what role each team member will play in the process.
Considered a buzzword by some, digital transformation is an absolutely essential component for all businesses, having accelerated even more rapidly over the past couple of years due to the pandemic. As a key to success for the future of most companies, it’s an unavoidable term unless we come up with something better…
[ Do the words 'digital transformation' make you cringe? Read Why people love to hate 'digital transformation'. ]
I asked experts from our community to weigh in on this divisive term and offer suggestions for what they’d rename it. What are some alternatives to this seemingly innocuous phrase? Here’s what they said:
"I’d rename digital transformation customer first. The term digital transformation gets one major thing wrong – it focuses on the technology. It focuses on outputs (changes in tech) and not outcomes (better customer experiences). Rather than focusing on tech while pushing the organization to develop customer-centricity (the current model), let’s try focusing on the customer and letting the tech serve the customer’s needs. The technology function still needs to lead this effort alongside other business functions, but words are powerful, and starting with a mindset of customer first puts the focus on the most important part of your business." -Rich Theil, CEO, The Noble Foundry
"I quit using the term digital transformation over a year ago and talk about Digital Dow. Calling it a transformation makes me think of a butterfly going through its transformation! Digital, in general, is overused and everything IT seems to be referred to as digital. I prefer to talk about improving or changing how work is done [by] leveraging digital capabilities. Ultimately this should improve the employee experience and the customer experience. And it includes employing AI and advanced modeling to drive better decisions and information overall." -Melanie Kalmar, Chief Information Officer and Chief Digital Officer, Dow
"Digital leadership. 'Transformation' has to have a purpose with tangible outcomes. Outcomes have to be those that break new grounds, enhance our quality of life, open up new innovation avenues and augment existing offers and services. Transformation executed with a purpose establishes the platforms of today that serve as a launching pad for the leaders of tomorrow. Digital transformation has evolved to be confused with just a change in the technology used. Many are the claims on digital transformation initiatives – but only a few have actually realized digital leadership." -E.G. Nadhan, Global Chief Architect Leader, Red Hat
[ Discover how priorities are changing. Get the Harvard Business Review Analytic Services report: Maintaining momentum on digital transformation. ]
“New Ways of Working (NWoW) is our term. Of course, New Ways of Working requires quite a few catalysts in the form of culture and technology.
"Culture: Retool your leadership in new ways of leading before you demand your organization be agile. Agile teams are empowered, cross-functional, and have the ability to move quickly and test and learn. The role of the leader is not to tell teams what to do but to create a fertile environment to innovate. The role of the leader is to create the outcomes and eliminate barriers. Train your leaders in these new ways of leading before you send your teams off to be agile.
"Technology: Focus on agile infrastructure and data before you demand an agile work environment. Creating agile teams that are cross-functional and empowered is a good step. But this only works if you have embarked on your technical transformation and created the highways to safely and continuously deploy software. The combination of culture, technology, and agility is creating NWoW." -John Marcante, Retired CIO, Vanguard
"Digital transformation is very critical for organizations that must reinvent their business models because of digital opportunities and disruptions. For many businesses, this means developing new products for the digital age, improving customer experiences, leveraging analytics in decision-making, and empowering the workforce with smarter technologies. I call leaders driving these transformations digital trailblazers, and they recognize the importance of challenging the status quo while applying agile practices to plan, experiment, and deliver business-impacting capabilities." -Isaac Sacolick, President of StarCIO and author of Driving Digital and Digital Trailblazer.
"I would change the term digital transformation to strategic transformation. To me, digital is somewhat ambiguous and focuses too much on technology. Using 'strategic' provides more weight on being strategic. Embarking on any enterprise-scale initiative always requires strategy. Strategy on how technology and the business will align to operate more efficiently, better serve customers, become more agile, gain competitive advantage, and position the company for future growth." -Donald Hook, Chief Technology Officer, Full On Consulting
[Where is your team's digital transformation work stalling? Get the eBook: What's slowing down your Digital Transformation? 8 questions to ask.]
What to read next
Subscribe to our newsletter.
Keep up with the latest advice and insights from CIOs and IT leaders.