Rise of the 'digital transformation' guru

Though I left the world of journalism some years ago, I still get emailed lots of press releases.

One arrived this morning, about a new handbag company that claims to be a business ‘disruptor’.  

‘How?’, you might ask. ‘We are a luxury handbag brand disrupting the market with timeless designs that, unlike those of our competitors, do not feature excessively ostentatious branding,’ reads the first paragraph.

Every company seems to want to position itself as a ‘disruptor’ at the moment – even those doing things as decidedly non-disruptive as making handbags with subtler-than-average logos.

This got me thinking about a related buzz-phrase – ‘digital transformation’.

Numerous people who were running around the conference speaker circuit a few years ago claiming to be ‘social media’ gurus have now reinvented themselves as ‘digital transformation’ experts.

Cynics might suspect that they’ve done this not because they’ve suddenly learned a new discipline, but because they’re following the money.

Just as these people once proclaimed that if companies don’t ‘get’ social media they will perish, they’re now declaring that businesses must ‘digitally transform’ themselves or die.

It’s not just superannuated social media gurus getting in on this act – the big global management consultancies are focusing on it too, as subscribers to McKinsey’s email newsletters will well know.

Yet there’s nothing new about either the concepts wrapped in new ‘digital transformation’ packaging, or the idea that ‘traditional’ businesses will collapse if they don’t embrace them. Indeed, such ideas were discussed endlessly during the dotcom boom almost two decades ago. eBay will bring an end to auction houses. Amazon will spell the death of the bookstore. And so on.

So why is all this making a comeback now?

For one thing, a new wave of genuinely ‘disruptive’ businesses – from taxi firm Uber to lodging rental company Airbnb – has given digital transformation ‘experts’ a fresh batch of case studies with which to fill their PowerPoint presentations.

For another, there is a certain breed of conference-hopping guru who needs a Big New Thing to peddle. Social media is simply not that new any more – and ‘digital transformation’ sounds impressive.

Is ‘digital transformation’ a load of old nonsense?

No, for two reasons:

  • First, it’s undoubtedly true that the likes of Uber and Airbnb, like Amazon and eBay before them, pose a real threat to their direct and longer-established competitors. And there are some useful lessons that firms in other sectors can learn from such startups’ ability to devise business models that incumbents failed to invent themselves.
  • Second, the ambiguous phrase ‘digital transformation’ has become an umbrella for a raft of activities that includes genuinely worthwhile efforts to get digital channels taken more seriously, and integrated more deeply, at all levels of – and across all areas of – an organisation. Indeed, Bowen Craggs has been championing these particular sorts of activities for years.

But the term ‘digital transformation’ is so broad that it can mean very different things to different people – and, like online technologies themselves, has very different implications for different companies.

So if you choose to hire a ‘digital transformation’ expert, make sure that their specific experience and expertise fit the needs of your organisation. And be very suspicious of anyone with ‘digital transformation consultant’ printed on their business card in the space that said ‘social media consultant’ a few years ago.

- Scott Payton