The Buzz of Digital Transformation and What it Means to Practitioners

A typical day of a person in a digitally transformed world

Imagine John Scott lives in the transformed, digital age; a truly digital age.

By the way, it is winter and the first thing he likes to see on a winter morning is the way sun beams stream down and burst into thousand golden rays illuminating ice flakes and ice mounds. When he opens his eyes, the sleep sensors in the room calculating the advent of the event beforehand would have alerted the coffee-maker and the motorised, electronically controlled window blinds, of it. Thus, when he opens his eyes and arches his back stretching himself into a yawn, the Digital Assistant would wish him a good morning drawing the blinds up and ushering his favourite view in. (Just like you see in movies).

The coffee would be ready by now and as soon as he gets to the coffee maker, what he sees is his coffee made-to-taste, with steam curling and rising from the mug even as maintaining the temperature that he finds palatable. What a perfect start for a perfect day!

Up until this moment, he did not have to lift his little finger or utter a command to have his preference getting done.

And as he settles down by the window, with the coffee mug in hand, the Digital Assistant would start reading out the news of the day on his-need-to-know basis. Maybe it emphasises more on sports and less on politics with a dash of local news.

Then it reads out his schedule for the day. He may suggest certain amendments, and a visit to the salon gets not only added to the list but also booked moments shortly or instantaneously with your Digital Assistant communicating with the DA of the salon (assuming both of them are run by different enterprises) and realising that a slot is available, conspire to let you get hold of the same.

His toilet is digitalised in that it sends medical data to his doctor every day and his system analyses for patterns and anomalies in the data and alerting the doctor of the same. As you step into the bath tub for a nice, warm bath everything regarding the experience is preordained.

And as he ultimately gets into his driverless car to go to the office, something which has otherwise become quite rare, and he is dropped off at the curb-side, the system debited the money for the taxi ride, just a play of numbers. He has not seen bills or liquid cash in ages.

One can go on and on like this. But please be advised that this is no depiction of science fiction. This is the imminent future of our potentially potent spacefaring civilisation. Sensors, data, analytics and automation would drive the world. It will not be a hyper-converged, hyper-connected world in action. Rather, it would be a fusion of digital and physical world.

But we are not there yet and we, as we read these lines are living in the mid-digital era, in other words, we are in the ‘interim of things’, a transition phase.

Meaning of digital transformation 

‘Digital transformation’ is an oft-repeated phrase that its meaning has been lost beyond redemption, okay; somewhat.

The phrase has so frequently been used that it is as if everybody knows what it is, but nobody knows what it really is.

This situation has also made people rather shy of inquiring what digital transformation actually is; it is like asking what an apple is? [Only a clueless, hitch-hiking Alien would ask that question and even it may not dare to ask what ‘Apple’ is, lest it be deemed blasphemy.]

Thus, the phrase is present in everybody’s vocabulary baggage sans the real meaning.

It also means that virtually anything can impersonate ‘digital transformation’ so much so that it has become a conduit or vehicle of transit for many things that are not related to digital transformation; a Trojan horse equivalent for things that are not aligned with digital transformation.

Let us change this for good. Read on.

What on earth is digital transformation?

“Broadly, a digital transformation involves two types of change: business-model innovation, whereby companies introduce digitally enabled products and services, and operational improvement, whereby companies apply advanced technologies and ways of working to enhance the development and delivery of projects.”—McKinsey

“Digital transformation is the process of using digital technologies to create new — or modify existing — business processes, culture, and customer experiences to meet changing business and market requirements.”—Salesforce.

Two words and two phrases stand out in the above mentioned definition:

  1. Digital
  2. Transformation
  3. Digital technologies
  4. Business processes

Let us get to know one of these words rather intimately, first.

Digital

In the age of touch-responsive screens wherein everything is literally at your fingertips, it is interesting to note that the word digital indeed comes from the Latin word digitus meaning finger!

So the word always had a promised piece of real estate, a promised land in this 21st century after its use was first recorded in the 17th century. Only that an entire era found its meaning and belonging in a word that is 400 years old and ended up identifying itself with it.

[In fact, if the word digital were a man, he would have died of awe-inspired cardiac arrest: the man asked for one stem of flower and received a custom named bounty of spring season in response to his request.]

By alluding to the term digital, we are looking at a binary world. A world of 1 and 0 arranged over and over again, mixed and mashed time and again, until they are capable enough to translate the real world into digital.

This change in itself took perhaps a century of efforts to fructify.

Thus, a Calculator (an erstwhile living and breathing personnel in a bank) was first kicked out from his position and then made to shrink and transform into a square shaped box, (the size of a cigar box) and later an on-screen presence on a desktop/ mobile and now a functional voice response on Alexa (derived from the name of Alexandria in Egypt, an ancient place of learning).

Transformation and its historical pace

Dictionary defines transformation as a marked change in form, nature, or appearance.

And most of the industry-wide transformations have one of the following attributes:

  1. Displacement of old players or sometimes their relative positions: the replacement of Sears by Wal-Mart is a case in point.
  1. Redefinition of industries or even creation of new market segments: Apple removing the word ‘Computer’ from its corporate identity in the early 2000s is a cross section of an example.

Also, technology and transformations constitute a coupling of a duet; they go hand in hand. In the case of digital transformation, advancements in semi-conductor and computing technologies have altered the human destiny and flung it into to a new trajectory of change.

But the transformation comes not without its past and that too a very long one. Take a look at the table below and you will realize that what we take for granted these days as transformation was indeed painstaking glacial pace of change which only resulted in incremental alterations over millennia.

This is to situate things in perspective, for us not to think of it as something that has always been around.

In 2010 or 15 years down the road from 1995, the iconic iPad was launched.

[It is also pertinent to note that first-mover monopoly has come down drastically for products introduced between 1887 and 1906 from 33 years to just 3.4 years for products introduced between 1967 and 1986.]

And these days, accelerated change has given way to ‘change at the speed of light’, literally and virtually.

Key technologies involved in digital transformation

Let us list them out for you:

  1. Mobile
  2. Cloud
  3. IoT or Internet of Things
  4. Digital Twin
  5. Robotics
  6. Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning
  7. Augmented Reality
  8. Additive Manufacturing

Mobile and digital transformation

Mobile is a foundational tool that empowers and helps leverage the capabilities of other game-changing technologies. Take the simple use case of field service technicians utilising interactive and real-time guidance from a pool of experts in the headquarters thousands of miles away from them in physical space through AR (Augmented Reality) to repair industrial assets or machinery.

Yes, those ‘we-know-where-to-hit’ experts can be summoned to places anywhere in the world by dialling a ten digit number. (And 5G telephony is yet to be rolled out; so are a host of 5G-enabled remote surgery instruments, remotely controlled excavator machines etc.)

Cloud and digital transformation

Cloud storage capabilities are synonymous with digital transformation. Storing and retrieving data and making it device independent or enabling it to be accessed from anywhere; that is cloud. And that is power. And that power enables transformation.

IoT and digital transformation

When your machine starts talking to you, in the sense that it starts sending data across to you for you to analyse and take decisions, you get to have enhanced visibility of products and services. Added efficiency, ability to respond almost instantaneously to market and customer demands and to introduce innovation across the range of products/ processes/ services with unprecedented agility—all these come to you as the things start their dialogue with you.

Digital twins

Digital Twins are digital models that are a copy or representation of their physical counterparts. A car manufacturing company, without having to opt for expensive experimentation with things and parts physical, can use the digital twin of the product to run experiments and save time, energy and money.

Robotics

The use of machines to get repetitive tasks carried out is at the cusp of change. Data and analytics driven engines are pioneering changes in robotics with automation at the cynosure. Sensors and IoT are complementing the championing of robotics and human beings are being freed up to attend to higher level tasks.

Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning

Mountainous data loads, computing power and enhanced connectivity are transforming the AI landscape in an unprecedented manner. Previously unavailable insights now pop up everywhere and new ways of approach to the resolution of problems are being conceived. Product design field has innumerable use cases. Be it designing an opera hall to acoustic perfection or designing a new product within certain guardrails, AI and ML show the way.

Augmented Reality

Think of seamlessly connecting three different dimensions or worlds: physical, digital and human. That is AR. A junior lift technician (human) is able to relay the condition of the elevator at a hospital (physical world) by utilising his handset (digital) and seek inputs from another senior technician in his firm seated many thousand miles away from him to resolve the issues. The senior technician can guide the junior personnel by relaying visual graphics to the latter’s handset and aid him. This hassle-free approach, which means a junior technician’s time and services were utilised effectively and efficiently even as those of the senior technician too. Cost savings add to bottom line figures and saving of precious time to the top line figures.

Additive manufacturing

Also called 3D printing, additive manufacturing lets you print anything from a house to a heart valve. Take the case of machine spare parts at a manufacturing facility going berserk and getting damaged. The entire factory floor comes to a halt as the assembly line is disrupted. The new part may take ages to get shipped. Now, what if you could make the defunct part of the machine at your factory itself! That is additive manufacturing.

A little bit of history

The digital age was preceded by something else, a prequel or a precursor.

The story goes like this: when electricity was invented, the factories up until then ran on watermill or steam power, took 20 years to adopt electricity to power the core machines. The factory owners, to their credit had only used electricity initially to light the floors so that worker productivity be improved. The idea of shifting of factories away from watermills or sources of power to places in the vicinity of ports and thereby enabling easy and prompt shipping, took time to light up. That was the analog world in action.

This age eventually transitioned into the pre-digital age.

In the pre-digital age, one device had one function. Technologies ran parallel, but never merged into one another: TVs, newspapers, magazines, radio were all names of the physical media channels we consumed content from. Linear progress marked changes and transformation. World was quite simple in that companies were into production and products. Ads and marketing ventures propped demand up.

The beginning of digital age

The year 1947 witnessed the grand invention and introduction of the most vital component of digital age marking and heralding it. Transistor. In 4 years’ time, first commercially available computer is released for the purposes of arithmetic and data handling. 1969 came and ARPANET was introduced by a US government agency, a precursor to the Internet. Close on heels, 1971 saw the first email being sent across. And a decade down the road, the laptop computer is born. First mobile phone was launched in 1984; a ten hour charge enabling 30 minute usage.

The present

According to Zenith’s Tom Goodwin, we are in the ‘mid-digital age’. What we knew beforehand is now taken and “pulled… through a digital frame.” Thus the world’s largest store online which also is named after the planet’s longest river, has a catalogue online, addressed as e-commerce. TV ads have a new place on YouTube. Instagram ads are glorified print ads with influencer marketing transforming from “attractive people holding things up.”

The future

The future or the digital world depends on how data is collected, stored, analysed and retrieved to glean insights from. The IoT future ensures that items ranging from fitness-wearables and watches to cars and aeroplanes do communicate and interact with humans and amongst each other generating wave after wave of data every second.

All this data, needless to say, would be highly personal and sensitive and it should be collected and processed in a way that is respectful and worthy of trust maintaining utmost transparency.

Advertising and marketing of the future would blend around people. It would be less channel-centric and will field a more empathetic and customised approach.

The relevance of digital transformation and its effecting

A couple of years back, digital transformation was a fashionable word. Nowadays, the concept is a strategic imperative for organisations, big and small.

With the advancements in digital technologies like machine learning, process automation and others, the digital era has come of age. Speed, intelligence and superior human experiences are the norms now rather than exception.

So, why does digital transformation matter?

Former Accenture CIO Andrew Wilson summed up the importance of digital transformation quite succinctly, “A modern digital transformation (strategy) is all about the human. There’s an irony in that: in this age of ultra-fast technology, the human is at the heart of everything. You can’t be old-fashioned. You can’t have them filling out forms. They have just come up from talking to Alexa. They have just come from watching YouTube. If the services at work don’t feel like that, I’ m not doing my job.”

Not going digital is to go straight into a historical museum and fossilise into a piece of an exhibit there.

At its core, digital transformation is also a cultural transformation.

“In my experience, culture is the hardest part of the organization to change. Shifting technology, finding the right talent, finding the right product set and strategy—that’s all doable, not easy, but doable. Hardest is the cultural transformation in businesses that have very deep legacy and cultural roots.” — McKinsey advisor James Bilefield.

So training and transformation should go hand-in-hand.

“Employees won’t just go home one night and step into new roles in the morning. And you can’t change a culture by writing code. Successful change requires investment in communication and training, because you need great people and a great culture to execute any digital business strategy.”– Chris Bedi, CIO at ServiceNow wrote in an article.