Man running by Andy Beales

What do business leaders think digital transformation actually means?

Pete Marcus

05 Jul 2019

For all of us working in the tech sector, the words “digital transformation” have probably started to lose their meaning. We hear them so much, day in, day out, that their power has faded and their implications have become blunted. But there’s no denying that digital transformation remains one of the most important trends in the tech world today. In fact, when we surveyed 100 business leaders across the UK for our first Harvard Pulse report, back in March, we found that digital transformation was their top tech priority. It beat other hot topics such as 5G, artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things to the top spot. So this quarter we decided to delve a bit deeper. We asked business leaders what they thought digital transformation actually involved, how they’re doing in their own transformation programmes, and what they look for from tech brands trying to help. Start with what counts as digital transformation. To help focus their responses, we provided a series of different outputs or outcomes that could result from a transformation programme. The most popular definition of digital transformation according to our survey, by a fair distance, was that it involved “new hardware or devices” (selected by 43% of respondents). This beat “new skills and attitudes among employees” (in second place with 36%), “improving the customer experience” (35%) and “new business processes or workflows” (34%). Meanwhile more profound changes were lower down the list. “Different business models or strategies” was only selected by 24% of respondents, for instance, while “cultural changes” was chosen by just 15%. We were surprised by these results for a few reasons. First, there’s no majority opinion – it seems like people’s views are quite evenly split and digital transformation could involve a few different outcomes, rather than a single clear “answer”. Second, the focus on devices made us raise our eyebrows. Is it unfair to suggest that businesses are prioritising what’s easiest to fix – rolling out new smartphones, for example – rather than the messy, complicated, slow and intangible stuff like changing their company culture or pivoting their business model? But maybe the emphasis on hardware reflects the fact that our tools shape a huge amount of what we can do at work. And it’s easy for us to forget, as an office-based, tech-obsessed business, that most companies aren’t like ours. Giving every shop assistant an iPad, for example, can play an integral role in making digital transformation a reality at the coal face of a retail organisation. That shouldn’t be downplayed. Third, only 1% of our respondents admitted they didn’t know what counted as digital transformation. They might be too afraid to admit their ignorance. But our interpretation is that tech brands are talking to an informed and opinionated audience. Underestimate them at your peril. Business leaders’ understanding of digital transformation isn’t that surprising when you see how long most organisations have been running such programmes. The majority of companies we surveyed (52%) have been carrying out a digital transformation push for between 2-5 years. Only 4% of business leaders indicated that their company has no such programme in place. So the fascination with digital transformation is prompted by the fact that it’s a day-to-day reality for most companies right now. They’re likely to be in the middle of making it happen. That inevitably generates a bunch of thoughts and issues that they need help addressing and ironing out. No wonder it’s their top tech priority. So how can tech brands help? Produce better comms about digital transformation, right? Well our research found there’s still a way to go for vendors to produce marketing material or thought leadership content on digital transformation that the majority of businesses value. In fact, only two in five businesses said they found such material from tech brands to be informative or educational – and that was the best score in the survey. Only a third (34%) found brands’ content to be helpful, just 21% described it as practical and a mere 18% said it was relevant to their organisation. Clearly, brands have plenty of work to do to produce entertaining, engaging and useful content in their marketing and comms programmes. If that’s something your brand needs help with, feel free to drop us a line. Have a read of the full Harvard Pulse report.