Digital transformation?! Your boss's PowerPoint New Year resolution, deconstructed

Dear Leader flips eye-popping Uber and Tesla figures

Hey, it's the new year. Time to let those annual planning slides shimmy over you, washing away the dangling tickets of last year like a purifying clean install. Somewhere amid pictures of robots shaking hands with meat-maws and millennials writing on glass walls will, no doubt, be the details of your firm's "digital transformation".

At first, you may be shocked to hear that you're so analogue – weren't we up to our eyeballs in digital last year when we updated all the desktops and finally enabled the CEO's iPhone to check email? Then, as Dear Leader flips through some eye-popping figures around Uber and Tesla (all the money is in multi-sided platform businesses overflowing with customer data, now, you now), you'll start to think: "Oh crap. They're serious. Erm. So, what exactly is 'digital transformation'? (Should I be updating my LinkedIn?)"

As my writing during the past year attests, I spend much of my time surveying the kipple of decaying digital transformation efforts. They always start with grandiose trend chasing – AI! Blockchain! IoT! The Gig Economy! Augmented Reality! Drones! – but they end up with something more simple: just using software to automate previously manual-driven business processes.

It's certainly not as sultry a strategy as asking Alexa to machine-learn her way into estimating how many nappies you'll need to order fortnightly based realtime feedback from nappy-can sensors in your demographic, but more pedestrian applications of software will likely prove better at generating cash for your business.

The customer-facing side of life presents several scenarios for digital.

In retail and banking, digital tends to revolve around omni-channel programmes (selling our products in more ways than just the till and online, like delivery), adding in more analytics (help us find more paths to the customer's wallet), and cleaning up the crufty, slow-moving application stacks of the past. The last one usually goes under the banner of "enable innovation", which though vague and unhelpful usually just means "burn down the legacy stacks and slam in all that cloud stuff so we can actually deliver software faster".

Others will summarize the goals of digital transformation as increasing an organisation's intelligence, agility, and customer-centricity. But it all amounts to the same thing: spinning up the IT Morlocks to actually get out there and provide new, software-driven capabilities to the business folks. These dry-cleaned Eloi then direct their new toys to either cut costs by becoming more efficient or grabbing more money by inventing new business models.

Interestingly, "mobile" is often further down the list; I suspect this is because mobile was the craze years ago and companies have either finished out their programmes here, or became exhausted trying. That said, I'd wager that most of these efforts were to simply reskin existing web-based apps into native mobile apps. There's still plenty of room to introduce brain-dead simple but clearly useful features like letting people turn off their credit cards when they think there's monkey business afoot after their teenager scuttled off to the mall. Just unlocking your hotel door with your phone ("the Internet of door-knobs") or glancing at your watch to see which airline seat you'll be stuffing yourself into does wonders for making life suck less.

Further back, "digital" has clearly ceased to mean "the social" as it seemed to when the term emerged years ago as companies were scrambling to figure out how many pictures of sandwiches they should post a day on Instagram. Hopefully you've long figured out the right times of the day to tweet about your upcoming deals on laundry detergent and your most recent thought-leadership think-pieces on industrial-grade cement and ethically sourced goose down. Go digital without going crazy.

When it comes to the Making My Life Less Tedious Department, it's encouraging that companies are cottoning on to new technologies. 451 Research surveys have found that during the past year, companies self-identifying as "early adopters" has doubled, up from a scant 9.5 per cent to 17 per cent. This is still paltry when you look at all the opportunities to automate those boring, low-value businesses processes, but at least it's progress in the right direction.

Still, that same outfit says that a whopping – but not unexpected – 75 per cent of organisations are on their back-foot when it comes to planning out their digital transformation: they're just now sorting out which slides to have in the back-up section of their digital transformation decks (I'd suggest any involving people wearing a VR headset, but I don't want to tell you how to live your life).

And if you're facepalming about how obvious and inane it all is, yes, folks: that's the point.

With all the breathless pixels spilled on AI, IoT, machine learning, my favorite darling "cloud", and other haunting tales of "digital disruption", it's all too easy to whack through the digital miasma and end up with a suite of future-shock ready "solutions" that have little to no bearing on your daily operations.

When your well-heeled strategy navigators are done vellicating through their master 2017 strategy deck, try your best to pull their eye-holes closer towards the basics that, while boring, will have a more profitable effect on your businesses and your customers' lives. ®

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