Digital Transformation: The Oxygen of IT

  • May 11, 2021
Ocean waves

“Technology must be like oxygen: ubiquitous, necessary, and invisible.” *

I frequently come back to this quote when talking with clients because I believe technology should eventually move towards this state. Like oxygen, it should be perpetual, fluid and agile. But more importantly, it should drive continuous transformation. As IT professionals, we live with the fundamentally flawed perspective that transformation is defined by technology projects with a beginning, middle and end. The truth is transformation is perpetual.

Historically, the IT industry has always been viewed in cyclical plateaus. Every decade a new technology comes along, and it defines that decade’s transformation agenda. We went from mainframe to client-server to web 1.0 and web 2.0 and to where we are today. When we overlay digital transformation to this timeline, we tend to view the idea of transformation as a defined project, measured in time and one that has a definitive start and end cycle. While the project might be done, the transformation is not because the project was just an incremental step in the journey and not the transformation itself.

The very nature of transformation is transformative and should not be confined or defined by the conventional ideas of project timelines. We have examples of many companies that have faded to oblivion because they failed to transform. GE, for example, a household name since the 1900s and one that shaped and influenced the American and global markets for decades, is a shadow of its formal self. Or Kodak failed to capitalize on the rapidly changing technology of the up-and-coming digital camera and declared bankruptcy in 2012. “When great trees fall,” wrote Maya Angelou, “rocks on distant hills shudder, lions hunker down in tall grasses,” but when these trees fell, the world barely heard the philosophical sound.

The high cost of a flawed perspective
While I’ve cited only two of the more famous examples, hundreds of companies are failing to manifest their vision because they’re looking at transformation as a project with a series of events that need to be done. This flawed perspective has stifled advancements and innovation and continues to prevent businesses from achieving differentiation and market expansion. Companies should not be thinking of transformation in their annual — leave alone five-year and ten-year — visions; they must think of transformation with every second, with every decision. That’s how agile and nimble they must be to survive.

I have spoken to hundreds of clients in my career, many of them from large companies with a rich heritage. Often their vision to transform is stifled by excuses, unlike the new and unfettered digital companies. “We are unique; our problems and issues are unique,” they say. To which I say: There is nothing unique about you. You’re selling a service/product, and that’s not unique. “We’re really complex,” they say. To which I say: Fundamentally, you’re not complicated. Or they say, “This process is critical. Under no circumstances can we touch it; it might break the system.” To this, I recall one specific client whose “untouchable” process was disabled for a whole week, and no one realized it. So, to that, I would like to say: Now tell me, how critical was that, really?

Three ways to take transformation to the next level
And here’s what I do tell clients who are ready to take their transformation to the next level:

  1. Innovate. Think perpetually about a state of innovating and change. Adopt an entrepreneurial mindset as a leader and challenge your organization to think differently about your business.
  2. Be agile. Start thinking about change in terms of days and weeks, not months or years. If something isn’t working, quickly pivot in a new direction to achieve the results you’re striving for.
  3. Always ask why. Constantly question the process and challenge the norm; it is the antidote to becoming obsolete. Just because something has always been done in a certain way doesn’t mean there isn’t a better, more efficient way.

It’s time for the industry to select the ‘re-center’ button and place the navigation compass back on course. We need to start seeing transformation as a state of being rather than an end state. Like oxygen, transformation itself must be made ubiquitous. It must be integrated into the DNA of every organization so companies can create a culture of innovation, adopt an agile mindset and breathe and think transformation every step of the way.

*As said by Chris Lehman, Founding Director of The Educator Collaborative.

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