Digital Transformation Delusion

The term "Transformation" doesn't ring too well in my ears. There is something axiomatically pejorative about it, when used in a business context. That the term is liberally used by technology consultants, prescribing bright, shiny objects for pain points within an organization, is widely known. Its deeper implications in the way we perceive and formulate change isn't. 

Before I inquire further, let me share the provocation which triggered it.

Stumbling upon McKinsey's recent article in my feed, curiously titled, "Transformer-In-Chief: The new chief digital officer", I perked up reading these lines in the first paragraph.

"The CDO is now a “transformer in chief,” charged with coordinating and managing comprehensive changes that address everything from updating how a company works to building out entirely new businesses. And he or she must make progress quickly"

My apprehensions over the hoity-toity title, which looked like the love child of a Michael Bay film and the latest Gartner report, rang true. Definitely, it would take a nerdy superhero from the Marvel Universe to accomplish everything McKinsey has charted for.

Probably, some of you might be sneering, in response, "Oh dear! Who do you think would take the strategic and budgetary responsibility for the digital agenda and lead the organizational change towards becoming a digital organization?"

I am aware that the current leadership and organizational structure in most of the large organizations isn't oriented towards the new operating model. It is tempting to make an argument from the lens of history, derived from the works of notable historians such as Joseph Tainter and Daron Acemoglu, as eloquently paraphrased by Venkatesh Rao in his brilliant, Breaking Smart series,"...[that] it is the nature of the problem-solving institutions, rather than the nature of the problems themselves, that determine whether human societies succeed or fail in adapting to change"

However, it still doesn't take us far to the root of understanding the prescriptive nature of change, formulated by McKinsey and the likes of Big Four Consulting Organizations,and implemented in organizations through roles with sexy job titles.

This isn't the first time, this trope is being played in Change Theater. WhenKnowledge Management came into fashion in the mid-nineties, we chorused for Chief Knowledge Officer; during the early 2000s, we rallied for Chief Innovation Officer; and more recently, during 2008-10, we began to root for Chief Social Officer. As the etymology of words like corporation and organization suggests, we humans have a tendency to not just romanticize organizations through anthropomorphic metaphors, (as was evident during our collective mourning over the death of Kodak), but also perceive significant, epochal change through similar anthropomorphic metaphors. 

Despite the successful exceptions, these roles haven't become the norm for a good reason. These “planned changes” rarely led to “planned effects”. Why do we still persist with the same, tried approach to change? Why do we consistently operate by our wired assumption that every organization with a challenging problem needs new leadership?

Perhaps, our change management paradigms are still driven by the old, western Myth of Heroic Intervention. Underneath the glossy facade of the digital technologies, we still rhyme along the old myths, dominant in the Western imagination where the Transformer- In-Chief, battles the odds of bureaucratic hierarchy, slays those inefficient processes, and empowers his followers, to give birth to a radically new, digitally transformed organization.

As Dr. Neal Preston, an organizational psychologist, addresses in this insightful interview, the problem with this myth is that it projects a naive, linear, cause-and-effect model of reality, oblivious to the complexity which underlies the change.

How can organization “transform” itself by domesticating the messy, and unwieldy technological landscape through a consultant’s legible, one-size-fits-all definition of “digital”? Is it fair to sprinkle the magic dust evoked by the word “transformation” for change that originates from paranoidal fear of staying relevant, by adapting oneself to the way startups go about their everyday business, investing heavily on startup accelerator programs, with all the paraphernalia, including open offices with bean bags, an ample supply of coffee and high-falutin rhetoric about disruption?

Scientists who study the origins and salient mysteries of life, have talked about a spectacular event that paleontologists call the Cambrian Explosion, which happened half-billion years ago, where in a relatively short span of few million years, the biological diversity that represent life on the planet today, were invented in a frenzy of evolutionary innovation.

Today, we are witnessing a digital “Cambrian Explosion” moment, with a similar explosion of mind-boggling diversity of business models, fueled by the restless, creative, entrepreneurial energies thriving inside the vibrant startup ecosystems all over the world. When you should be tinkering and experimenting with radical business models and sentient organizational structures, that will nevertheless sound ridiculous in theory to the old, conditioned strategic brain, the last thing you would want to do is conform to a circumscribed, howsoever authoritarian it may seem, “digital” framework, imposed by a consultant outsidean organization. 

In case the writing on the wall isn’t clear, let me state it without mincing words. Consultants, in the traditional sense of the word, following the old school of strategic thought, cannot help you grok digital transformation. The operating word here is “grok” because, it is possible to understand "Digital Transformation" through comprehensive models built by consulting firms, which capture the ambit of your customer's journey. To grok "digital transformation" requires you to penetrate into the soul of it. It demands you to immerse yourself into the restless, creative process of tinkering, as Venkatesh Rao puts it succinctly, "where problems are solved in serendipitous ways, through innovations that break assumptions about how resources can be used, typically making them less rivalrous and unexpectedly abundant".

Here is the crux of the conflict. Traditionally, consultants are wired to solve problems only through a goal-driven approach. This graphic (credits to my colleague Jayakumar Rajaretnam, during an intense conversation which birthed it) might help you understand this approach better.
 This goal-driven approach is defined by reframing the predicament, emerging from the changes in the business environment, as a problem with a defined scope boundary, with a "To-Be" vision, to be solved, by, you know who, the consultant. Understanding this approach in depth requires you to understand the subtle, yetcritical difference between a problem and a predicament.

Now, what is problematic in solving "digital transformation" problems through the familiar goal-driven approach? No model is future proof. Defining the "Proposed state", when you are uncertain about the future, is a recipe for failure, not to mention hugely limiting for organizations that should be ideally prototyping creative possibilities in this "Cambrian Explosion" maturity phase of digital technologies. 

Now, you may genuinely wonder, why am I saying all this? After all, my job description still reads as “Consultant”, and I do attempt to solve my clients’ “digital workplace” problems which can be categorized under the umbrella term “Digital Transformation”. The truth is, I am busy unlearning old habits, and learning new skills. 

Let's be frank. It's hard to resist the lure of the word "transformation", with its deeply enchanting image of the cocoon metamorphosing into a butterfly. In the past, I've used the word uncritically, to convey subtle signals of importance to the work I did for my clients.

Today, I use the word sparingly, strictly in a personal context. Because, what I've learned in all these years as a consultant, is that it is easy to preach endlessly,write books and explore concepts dialectically, with the vain hope that clients will transform and do the appropriate action, with the help of the truth conveyed inside those theories.

If one is serious about exploring the possibility of transformation, in the truesense of the word, the first, difficult, and the most painful step, is to become clearly aware of the delusions of transformation. The rest will fall in place.