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BLOG:Digital Transformation: Complex Topic, Immature Term

Digital Transformation: Complex Topic, Immature Term

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be sharing more and more content on digital transformation. Our CEO, Brett Cortese, kicked off the discussion with a high-level overview of what digital transformation means to us and how we, as a digital agency are taking transformations on.

In this article, we’ll deep-dive into some of the same ideas and concepts mentioned in the initial article. We’ll also be sharing a mini-series focusing on what digital transformation looks like in regards to strategy, design, technology and delivery.

Children’s books are usually a fabulous combination of illustration, picturesque words, curious situations, and other worlds that hold some type of excitement or adventure. From basic stories like A Monster At The End Of This Book and Goodnight Gorilla to created worlds like Where the Wild Things Are and Madeline, a main component seeps through when a child is reading these:


That imagination allows a child to think beyond the normal restrictions of what the world dictates as he or she sits exploring another place. It is also unique to that child; his or her imaginary vision of the story won’t match the vision of another child or adult, or even the author. As such, the words in most children’s books tend to be much less descriptive than in adult literature, usually due to the maturity of our thought as we grow.

What’s this got to do with digital transformation?

Good question.

Imagine if you would: an adult book with a complex story like Lord of the Rings but instead of using adult terms and constructs to tell the story and various points, only words from a children’s book could be used.

Would it be confusing? Could you make sense of the story?

Of course it would and of course you couldn’t.

That describes my position regarding digital transformation at this very moment in the life of the business world: it’s an adult concept with children’s words.

The Problem

Digital transformation (DT) is a complex topic with immature definitions leading to confusion, a preponderance of descriptions, and a waterfall of “solutions”.

There is a very large set of explanations in the marketplace, from 3-step programs to giant, consultant-laden initiatives and quick-hit apps that are supposed to solve an organization’s DT problems by “just launching ‘X’”. While some of these efforts may have an impact on an organization or its customers in the digital footprint realm, the jump into these areas has caused companies to leap into digital projects and products with (at times) a glut of apps and tools, creating somewhat of a digital bird’s nest that makes no sense and has no order.

The real issue is that digital transformation can mean something different to most people and they try to design into it what they think fits, or exclude from it what they think doesn’t fit.

For an organization, this can mean complete confusion, or damage to its strategic position; it can also be deflating, discouraging, and destructive to a company and its people. The immaturity of the term comes to surface as an organization attempts to dig into the morass that encompasses the V8, full-acceleration culture of digital:

“We just need to launch this app.” “Its a 4-year initiative. 20 people. $15 million.” “We talk to customers every day…we know what is needed.” “We fulfill customer orders every day…we know what is needed.” “I’ve been dealing with our customers for 15 years…I know what is needed.” “New mobile launch…new features…new needs. Our stuff from 6 months ago is old.”

To put simply: everyone in an organization can be affected in different ways - will probably have their own story - and will want to approach digital transformation differently.

So, what do you do?

Broaden your view. Realize the impact is not just digital: it’s organizational.

The Goal

To embrace and utilize digital transformation in an organization, the paradigm is pretty straightforward:

Get an organization to operate as an effective, cohesive transformational engine that understands and focuses on the transformation of experiences.

Of course, straightforward paradigms, in no way, equal “easy work”, and therein lies the complexity.

Digital transformation is not just:

a project or product silo-based an executive initiative or grassroots push a marketing effort or an IT initiative a digital focus turning a piece of paper into a screen or app

It is:

a contextual focus an effort of the entire ecosystem a holistic piece of transformation that is led strongly by the digital influence an endeavor that happens in stages, not with the flip of a switch.

While these bullet points may seem easy to mention, they fly in the face of many efforts we see today in how organizations handle the transformation of their digital experiences. Let’s take a look at some of these:

The Bad Guys

Projects seem to be the biggest villains in the mess, even though they are essential to getting targeted work completed. When an organization just compartmentalizes the digital work to be done into silos and kicks off projects to meet the “annual goals”, it’s a basic recipe for non-coordination of holistic vision at the working resource level (whether you have a PMO in place or not) and can easily lead to confusion or failure.

Silos can be completely destructive to almost any type of work, but are especially damaging in the digital transformation realm and in particular when the same end user is targeted. As organizations age and grow, they tend to navigate toward silos because of the ease of pure functionality. The culture dictates how permeable those silos become, but silos by their very nature end up becoming calcified as the self-focused cultures make their mark, set up walls, and grow in size. If the differences aren’t addressed culturally and by design, the silos will get more rigid and resistant to change, even if it’s a cool, look-how-unique-we-are culture.

Just a group pushing it? Executives, marketing, IT, sales, grassroots…they all have their reasons for undergoing DT; some personal, some career-oriented, some budgetary…you get the picture. But here’s the question: what group in the organization knows all the details about the entire organization?

Answer: None.

While we’ve heard from many organizations about where the “push” needs to reside, the reality is, the best transformations get push (and pull!) from everywhere; its a cultural piece, not an assignment. This takes that great buzzword: cross-functional coordination. Seems simple, but it’s not really. Politics, power, and budget come into play and can derail the best of intentions.

Finally: just a digital focus. The number one mistake we see organizations make is just addressing DT as “digital initiative” where “IT or someone takes care of it…”. These usually take the form of “turning something digital” or “making an app”, both of which are great things to do in today’s world, but hopelessly misplaced if they are expected to create a transformation by themselves.

I’ll touch more upon the heart of DT in the next blog post, but this must be stated again:

Digital transformation is not just digital; it is organizational.

With literally almost everything going digital in today’s organizational experiences, the very reach of what DT is goes well beyond just the digital assets and thinking. You know: devices, cloud stuff, sites, things talking to each other….all those items. It reaches into the guts of an organization and demands that those pieces are accounted for and participate. Think about how common organizational actions have changed in just the past 5 years: Purchasing & paying for something? Paypal? Apple Pay? Customer service & customer interactions?Twitter? Facebook? Where are you located? Smartphone maps. “Send me that file, please…” Um…which way? Email? Cloud-something? Text?

How have those very simple items affected your organization in the past 3-5 years? And how have they affected your employees? Your customers? Your purchasing? Your physical locations? Your strategy?

That requires seeing the connections at the working resource level. If you haven’t documented that, you’re just guessing.

The Good Guys

The great thing is that there are items we definitively know that are a part of digital transformation. Notice how they tend to fall more toward principles rather than actions.

A contextual focus is the dominant piece of information in this area, and fits very tightly with an effort of the entire ecosystem. The transformation of the digital experiences should be understood and backed by the entire organizational ecosystem in order to understand contribution and impact, but it always takes place in the realm of the context in which it should and does happen. What needs to change? And why? How? In what circumstances?

DT has to be understood across an ecosystem that has to adjust based upon a common strategic direction and in a contextual paradigm that embraces the circumstances.

By the way, that means that an organization has to take time to understand: the ecosystem, the connections, the expectations, the experiences, the capabilities….all those heavy items. The connection between those items is the key.

The digital influence cannot be understated: the expectations of your end-users are and will continuously be influenced by the changes and experiences created in the digital realm, no questions asked. Buying from you, shopping, engaging with an employee, dealing with an issue: all are touched — or can be touched — by digital.

The digital experience is also moving so fast and has a reach so deep that it is pulling other types of experiences with it (physical, organizational, behavioral) and demanding that they adjust. That is why understanding the ecosystem and how it is tied together is critical when making decisions on moving forward in digital. NOT doing so increases your chance of falling flat on your face, or — worse still — damaging part of your organization.

In an odd circumstance, the change actions that are required from the accelerated digital influence aren’t quick things; it’s an endeavor that happens in stages, not with the flip of a switch. An organization needs to think in terms of emergent strategy, not a _deliberate strategy _perspective. While deliberate strategy has an organization set a target far out in the future and hope for no adjustments, emergent strategy is designed to take smaller steps for smaller risks in the larger vision of strategic intent. In other words, plan your first step, take it, look up, and plan your next step. In the digital world, this is essential to paying attention to the ever-changing landscape of the digital ecosystem.

Moving Forward

Digital transformation is not an easy world in which to move forward. The terminology can be confusing, there seems to be a plethora of solutions out there just waiting to wave a magic wand and solve your issues, the market is moving faster and faster, and your customers and employees are demanding it.

This is all symptomatic of an immature term, and the creation of confusion that ensues leads to a sense of “I’m always behind.”

But don’t worry: there is hope.

Remember that the goal is to get the organization humming as a cohesive transformational engine that understands and focuses on the transformation of experiences.

That takes time.

And planning.

And vision.

Because at the heart of true digital transformation is the journey of an organization remaking itself in incremental steps, and that’s what I will discuss in my next post, Digital Transformation: Focus.