What Do We Mean When We Say Digital Transformation?
By Angela Adams
August 24, 2021

Have you noticed tech is full of buzzwords? Words like innovation. Pivot. Collaboration. Disrupt. Agile. Transformation.

These words, and words like them, are used so often and in so many contexts, that it’s become difficult to really know what someone means by them. Phrases like ‘disruptive innovation’ and ‘digital transformation’ certainly sound impressive, but what do they actually mean? 

When selecting a partner for an upcoming product development project, you want to get beyond the buzzwords. You need to know what’s being promised and get a clear idea of what to expect. 

At Presence, we try our best to stay away from buzzwords (we see you, ‘circle back’), yet ‘digital transformation’ is a phrase we use from time to time. So, what does Presence mean by digital transformation?

What is digital transformation?

Digital transformation occurs when digital products are used to catalyze significant change in processes and/or culture. 

When the motivation for retooling your tech or adopting new digital products is to change business processes or behavior, that’s an opportunity for digital transformation. An example might include a brick-and-mortar shop who begins using a new digital channel for the first time. Or a company who decides to adopt a new app to better manage internal communication. In these examples, adopting new technology will require new or modified business processes and will lead to a marked change in the behavior of consumers, staff, or both.

On the other hand, when an organization builds a new product or adopts a new tool, but the business processes or behavior of people largely do not change, that’s not a digital transformation, it’s a good ol’ technology implementation. And sometimes an implementation is just what you need! If you need to refactor code after a managed package makes some updates, there’s probably no need for large-scale organizational change-- someone just needs to fix the code. Talk about digital transformation in a case like this might be little more than marketing hype. 

While the specific digital product being leveraged is key to the outcome of a transformation effort, there’s something even more important: the people using it. 

Digital transformation starts with people. 

Let’s be honest-- we’ve all been persuaded to try a new app based on the promise that it will help us save time or will supercharge productivity. But no app, no matter how well designed or executed it is, will change our behavior without an investment from the user. 

For digital transformation to succeed, the behavior of the people using the digital product and their motivations for engaging in those behaviors must be addressed. Digital transformation doesn’t start with technology, but with the people using it. 

When choosing a product development partner, look for a firm who invests ample time in getting to know your organization and your people. They’ll be easy to spot because they’ll ask questions like: What brand strategy and product strategy work have you done? What is your business model? What are your business goals and how are you tracking progress towards them? What is included in your go-to-market plan? 

As for people -- your leaders, your staff, and your consumers-- who are they? What are their needs? What do they enjoy? What will motivate them to change their behavior? Have you tested concepts with your target audience? If so, what did those findings reveal?

We know that it’s incredibly tempting to want to skip this part and get right into product development. But without understanding how people are behaving and addressing the behavior at a motivational level, you’re at risk of building a technically sound product that will suffer low adoption.

An essential part of understanding people is identifying and evaluating the processes with which they engage: which processes are working well and where there’s room for improvement. 

Digital transformation honestly addresses processes. 

A digital transformation effort worth undertaking will shine a spotlight on your processes. This may be uncomfortable at times. For example, you might find out a high-performing team is not following a process meant to ensure data integrity because it takes too long. You might learn the new authentication process for consumers introduces friction, leading to an increase in abandoned carts. Or, you might find yourself reluctantly admitting you don’t even have a defined process for a business case. 

Rest assured, all of this is to be expected. When done well, a discovery process will always find risks and gaps in processes. We take this as a given, so we discuss existing business processes and future workflow goals with our clients. Bring on the flowcharts and process documents! We’ll ask you to share your customer journey and service design documents if you have them. If you don’t, we might recommend working with a design partner like Passage before beginning product development work. 

Getting to know your organization at this level allows us to take an honest inventory of where you are now, which processes need to be refined, and how you can best leverage the product we’re developing together to meet your business goals. 

Digital transformation means digital products work for your business. 

Digital transformation requires digital products that work… more specifically, digital products that work for your business. 

The goal of product development is to build products that work for your business, not create a scenario where your business is beholden to a digital product that doesn’t optimize your processes or serve your people. 

If you build an amazing product, but it doesn’t actually help your staff do their jobs or enable your consumers to purchase your products or services, what’s the point? 

When done well, product development is collaborative work. Design prototypes are built to solicit key feedback and validate concepts. Before ever writing a line of code, prototypes should be used to foster open dialogue about how the product, if implemented as designed, will impact your business processes and serve the greater business objectives. 

We take feedback like this into the development sprints with us. Then, as we plan sprints together, the development team will identify the sprint goals and how we plan to accomplish them. Backlog items will be prioritized by the development team within the context of the overall strategy. 

If we need to adjust a backlog item to fit a helpful process or desired behavior, we’ll incorporate that into the sprint. In cases where it would be better to create a new process or address behavior rather than to build a technical solution to work around it, we don’t shy away from that conversation. 

In fact, we’ve found that having tough conversations like this is what allows adopting digital products to lead to lasting organizational change! Working through challenging circumstances allows us to share common vernacular, implement tools that will foster improved team collaboration well after our project is finished, and bring together divergent disciplines who were previously siloed. 

People, Process, Technology

You’ve likely heard the phrase “people, process, technology.” And with good reason-- these are the keys to successful organizational change. A true digital transformation includes all three, too. If you encounter promises of “digital transformation” being bandied about, giving disproportionate emphasis to a digital product’s ability to transform your organization, be sure to ask how processes and culture will be addressed. By doing so, you’ll get beyond those buzzwords. 

Want to learn more about how Presence builds astonishing products? Send an email at contact@presencepg.com to begin the conversation!