Digital Transformation – a Definition and Thoughts on Principles


In my previous post, I suggested that the term “Digital Transformation” is not well understood, and all too often misused. In this post, I’ve attempted to put a little more structure around my earlier thinking, and offer a definition, including some initial thinking about the principles that we need to guide the digital transformation journey.

One of my motivations for doing this was a recent article by Archana Deskus, Intel SVP and CIO, in which she identified what she called the 3 hard truths of digital transformation.

Truth 1You must disrupt yourself … or someone else will.

Truth 2: Digital transformation isn’t about an IT strategy. It’s about leveraging continuously evolving technologies to change your entire business.

Truth 3: Transformation requires massive shifts in culture, operations, and people – with change and culture being the toughest aspects.

She concluded the article by saying: “The leaders who embrace digital transformation as a journey versus an end-state, and who keep an eye on reimagining the norm and embracing the complexities, will find it to be a game-changing path worth taking.

The material below is part of work I’ve been doing on a couple of initiatives and is still very much work in progress. However, I   found her words so reinforcing of what I have thought and been saying for quite some time that I wanted to test it out earlier than I had planned. While quite a bit of  the material has appeared in some shape or form in earlier posts, quite a bit is new, and I’ve attempted to net it out, and put more structure around it here.


Digital transformation is an ever-evolving digitally-driven and enabled journey of exploration and experimentation. It represents a cultural and mindset change which involves continually challenging all aspects of the status quo. It requires reimagining and fundamentally transforming government, business and society in a way that is inclusive of and creates value for all stakeholders.

Possible (areas for) Principles:

  1. Digital transformation is about much more than technology – it is fundamentally about culture and mindset and requires moving beyond a technology mindset to a business value mindset.
  2. The primary focus of digital transformation is on outcomes that create and sustain value for a broad range of stakeholders including organizations and people who are involved in or affected by the outcomes.
  3. Digital transformation’s reach goes beyond business and financial measures – it impacts, and its performance and value will be measured against the 3 dimensions of the Triple Bottom Line[1]: social, environmental, and economic.
  4. Realizing the potential value of digital transformation will require ongoing and fundamental changes to the nature and purpose of organizations, including, but not limited to their governance, business models, processes, people skills, and organization structure.
  5. Digital Transformation requires an obsession with simplicity and reducing complexity – transcending traditional roles and hierarchies, dismantling bureaucracy, and getting things done collaboratively, and flexibly through teamwork and responsible autonomy.
  6. Digital transformation requires recognizing that leadership is a behaviour that must be nurtured, empowered and rewarded throughout an organization, with leadership at the top creating an innovation-minded culture that fosters creative thinking, agility and speed based on a solid foundation of trust and empowerment.
  7. Digital transformation requires a more data-driven, flexible, and adaptable decision-making process, embracing openness and transparency, and focused much more on evidence and much less on traditional hierarchy and ego.
  8. Digital transformation requires the capability to rapidly adapt and up-scale or pivot as circumstances change.
  9. Unlearning is critical for digital transformation – it’s not what you know, but what you’re willing to unlearn, that will hold the key to successful digital transformation.
  10. Digital technology is itself neutral. When used ethically, it can contribute to positive outcomes for stakeholders. However, when used unethically, either accidentally or deliberately, its use can cause great harm. Organizations and society must be constantly aware of, and pro-actively guard against such misuse.

As I said at the beginning, this is still very much a work in process – as is digital transformation itself. As such, I would certainly very much welcome feedback or comments on the material.

[1] Source: John Elkington, “Towards the Sustainable Corporation: Win-Win-Win Business Strategies for Sustainable Development,” California Management Review 36, no.2 (1994): 90-100. Also see Elkington’s “rethink” in BR, June 25, 2018 (the title is misleading).

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One thought on “Digital Transformation – a Definition and Thoughts on Principles

  1. If you leave out the term ‘digital’, what is stipulated is true of any transformative drive. Digital technologies, especially ubiquitous sensing, universal high speed/high bandwidth communication channels and prodigious data storage/processing capacities are the most recent disruptors of the status quo. However biotechnologies can have a similar impact, and perhaps even greater, as we might transform our genetic endowments and phenotypes. The essentially conservative nature of our cultural traditions, rooted in family, tribe, ethno-religious group acts as a breakwater on rapid changes. Even revolutionary movements with all their ardor succumb to deeply rooted cultural traditions. Unless transformative changes are rooted in some aspect of entrenched cultural traditions, they will not take in the long haul. The trick is therefore to make the established traditions more effective. Change will always be resisted unless it is seen as truer to some of the core traditions than the current state of affairs. Many successful transformations are thus ‘rediscoveries’ of ancient truths.

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