Digital Transformation Definition — From an IT Pro’s Perspective

The digital transformation definition should focus on the operational work performed by the business’s IT organization.

Christopher Tozzi, Technology analyst

July 30, 2021

5 Min Read
Digital Transformation Definition — From an IT Pro’s Perspective
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Of all the buzzwords that have bounced around the IT industry in recent years, perhaps none can ring as hollow to developers’ ears as digital transformation. More so than terms like cloud or even DevOps, digital transformation is easy to write off as a term that means nothing in particular, or one that non-techies toss around to sound smart but don’t actually understand. Yet, it’s hard to deny that the concept of digital transformation — however you choose to define it — has been widely influential. After all, there’s an entire subreddit (albeit a quiet one) dedicated to digital transformation definition.

Like it or not, then, digital transformation is a term you’ll have to deal with if you work in development or a similar technical role. Rather than hating it, you may find value in dissecting the digital transformation definition in order to separate the hype surrounding the term from the technical principles that are at the heart of digital transformation as a concept. Those principles exist, if you dig deeply enough.

To prove the point, here’s a walk through digital transformation definition — from an IT pro’s perspective, instead of the C-suite point of view.

Digital Transformation Definition(s)

Part of the reason techies love to hate digital transformation, I suspect, is that there are so many competing definitions of the term out there. It’s hard to take a term seriously when there is little consensus about what digital transformation definition is.

Salesforce, for example, tells us that “digital transformation is the process of using digital technologies to create new — or modify existing — business processes, culture and customer experiences.” In other words, digital transformation is all about leveraging digital technology across the business.

Meanwhile, Harvard Business Review warns us that digitization is distinct from digital transformation. This interpretation would seem to conflict to a fair degree with the contention that digital transformation merely means rolling out digital technologies.

Digital transformation definition can also vary in terms of how much emphasis they place on culture. The Salesforce definition mentions culture, but it treats cultural change as a product of, rather than a catalyst for, digital transformation. In contrast, Red Hat’s Enterprisers Project defines digital transformation in part as “a cultural change that requires organizations to continually challenge the status quo, experiment, and get comfortable with failure.”

And then there are definitions like Wikipedia’s, which hinge in part on the idea that digital transformation is about replacing “manual processes” to achieve “efficiency via automation.” Other definitions of the term could imply that automation can be part of digital transformation, but they don’t make it an explicit requirement.

I could go on, but suffice it to say that attempts to define digital transformation vary widely in terms of they factor things like digital technologies, cultural change and automation into the equation.

Again, these competing definitions may be a turn-off for techies. Developers like terms and processes that are grounded and defined. They tend not to like abstract concepts that can mean whatever a business wants them to mean.

The Technical Core of Digital Transformation: IT Operations

There may be a way, however, to define digital transformation such that it makes sense to techies: Take an operations-centric view.

In other words, treat digital transformation as any type of innovation (whether it’s literally digital in nature or not) that improves the operations of the IT organization. From this perspective, digital transformation could mean anything from moving to a hybrid cloud architecture, to leveraging AIOps observability tools, to changing the organizational structure of your teams.

These are all examples of changes that benefit the business as a whole precisely because they improve IT operations work. Using AI or moving to the cloud might create new business opportunities or help the business save money, but only because they allow the IT organization to operate more efficiently and support business needs more effectively.

For developers and other practitioners, an operations-centric approach to understanding digital transformation offers three core benefits:

  • Relatability: Instead of framing digital transformation in abstract terms like “business value” or “business agility,” a focus on operations is directly relatable to techies who perform operations work.

  • Cultural value: You can improve operations through cultural change as well as technological change. Thus, an operations-centric view of digital transformation can apply to any type of improvement, not just the adoption of new digital technologies.

  • Continuous improvement: Definitions of digital transformation that focus on concepts like automation or the implementation of digital technologies imply that once your organization has made those changes, digital transformation is complete. In contrast, an operations-centric approach implies that there is always room for more improvement, because you can always make operations better.

Some folks might argue that it’s reductive to treat digital transformation simply as a means of improving technical operations. They may contend that digital transformation is about more than just technical change. But again, I’d argue that the only reason why digital transformation initiatives lead to meaningful change for the business as a whole is because they benefit developers and IT teams first.

Conclusion: Is There a Digital Transformation Definition?

Perhaps the only thing everyone can agree on when it comes to digital transformation is that it’s a messy term whose precise definition may be impossible to pin down.

Still, I tend to think that the term would be more useful — and would meet with less derision from techies — if the conversation surrounding digital transformation shifted from focusing on the business to focus on the operational work performed by the business’s IT organization. That’s where the heart of any digital transformation lies, and where it needs to begin.

About the Author(s)

Christopher Tozzi

Technology analyst, Fixate.IO

Christopher Tozzi is a technology analyst with subject matter expertise in cloud computing, application development, open source software, virtualization, containers and more. He also lectures at a major university in the Albany, New York, area. His book, “For Fun and Profit: A History of the Free and Open Source Software Revolution,” was published by MIT Press.

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