The Problem with the Term Digital Transformation

Executive Summary

  • Digital transformation is a misapplied term that has been popularized by SAP, but which makes no sense. There is a significant problem using the word to describe IT implementations.
  • This is an excellent example of how SAP adopts misleading terms to control the narrative.

This chameleon can transform itself. And it can do so without the benefit of any digital technologies.


Digital transformation is a common term used in the IT space and, in particular, in the SAP space. It is a recent term and also a highly problematic term. I now come across the statement that some SAP application was implemented for digital transformation or part of a digital transformation program.

So what is digital transformation?

The Definition of Digital Transformation

It that turns out to be a much more interesting question than before I looked up the definition. It is essential to see the different aspects of the meaning of digital transformation so we can determine how the term is presently used.

“Digital transformation may be thought of as the third stage of embracing digital technologies: digital competence → digital usage → digital transformation, with usage and transformative ability informing digital literacy. The transformation stage means that digital usages inherently enable new types of innovation and creativity in a particular domain, rather than simply enhance and support the traditional methods.[2] In a narrower sense, “digital transformation” may refer to the concept of “going paperless” and affects both individual businesses[3] and whole segments of the society, such as government,[4] mass communications,[5] art,[6] medicine,[7] and science.[8]” – Wikipedia

So in this quotation, we can see that digital transformation is supposed to lead to something new. Using digital technology allows one to “reimagine,” redesign, transform how something is done, or perhaps how something is used.

The Example of Digital Transformation with GPS and Google Maps

If we take a simple example, we can certainly see how GPS and mobile phones with Google Maps have transformed road navigation.

I recall getting around using maps and guidebooks, and I both missed out on exciting things to see, and the overall process of folding maps, organizing maps, buying new maps, spilling coffee on my maps, and so on was never all that efficient. GPS demonstrated the superiority of using this transformative technology.

I was an early adopter of GPS and began using a GPS unit with what must have been a 2 inch by 2-inch screen. However, even that primitive GPS unit, by today’s standards, was a significant upgrade over using paper maps. What always impressed me was the ability of the unit to recalculate the route always. Unlike a route on a map, which once you switched out a location had to be reviewed, even the earliest GPS units allowed you to change your trip regularly, and it would adjust. As someone always on the road, the GPS and now the Google Map enabled phone or tablet have indeed been transformative. It is also true that what was previously done by maps and human calculation was activated with digital technology (GPS in this case). Therefore this is a suitable example of digital transformation.

Digital Technology and True Transformation of Tasks

So digital technology can transform, but let us hold that thought for a moment because I want to use the example of the GPS, and the Google Maps enabled phone or tablet as a contrast to most IT implementations.

Let us move to the next quote on digital transformation, as this brings up the topic of how old the term digital transformation is.

“In 1703 Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz explained and envisioned the concept that would be known as “digitalization” in his publication Explication de l’Arithmétique Binaire.[9] Initially developed as a base-2 numerical system, representing two values: either a 1 or 0, the system was further developed and complemented by scholars such as Boole (1854),[10] Shannon (1938)[11] and George Stibitz during the 1940s.[12]”

Here we can see that the definition of digital transformation goes way back. 1703 is quite a way back, indeed.

Pre-computers, Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, was proposing a concept of the binary system that is the foundation for how computers store and process data today.

But this cannot be the type of digital transformation that most companies are describing today when they explain that implementation is part of a digital transformation. Moving to a new system that stores and processes data in a binary system already happened decades previously.

The Broader Implications

Let us see another quote on digital transformation to understand the broadest implications of the term.

“Finally, digital transformation is described as “the total and overall societal effect of digitalization”.[14] Digitization has enabled the process of digitalization, which resulted in stronger opportunities to transform and change existing business models, socio-economic structures, legal and policy measures, organizational patterns, cultural barriers, etc.[16]

Digitization (the conversion), digitalization (the process) and the digital transformation (the effect) therefore accelerate and illuminate the already existing and ongoing horizontal and global processes of change in society.[14][15]”

Here the term is used to describe society’s general move towards using digital technologies.

If we think of the different dimensions of the definition of digital transformation listed above, only the first dimension can be said to be specific to IT implementations. However, there is a problem with digital transformation, and I want to get into that next.

Digital Transformation in Word Processing

I am currently typing this article on a 7-year-old MacBook Pro. If I were to purchase a 2017 MacBook Pros and use it, would it be digitally transformative compared to what I am currently doing?


My workflow would stay about the same, the data would be stored the same way, but I would probably benefit from using a faster computer. But would it make sense to describe replacing an old computer with a new computer?

I recently visited Hemingway’s’ house in Key West. And at the center of his work studio were over nine years, he wrote books that are now considered classics in literature. At the center of the room was a tiny Royal Quiet de Luxe manual typewriter. As a writer who often uses three screens and two computers at once, I am amazed by what Hemingway accomplished with that small machine. All of that great work came out of that single, tiny little typewriter. If Hemingway had lived longer, he would have typed on an electric typewriter. Electric typewriters had many advantages over manual typewriters, but they are only electronic, not digital, in any way.

Charting Hemingway’s Potential Digital Transformations

  • If Hemingway had lived into the 1960s, we could have used the IBM Selectric, and that would have been an “electrical transformation” of his writing.
  • If Hemingway had lived into the 1970s, he could have used a Wang computer with some of the first-word processing software that used a CRT screen.

Word processing did go through a digital transformation, as the following quotations attest.

“The labor and cost savings of this device were immediate, and remarkable: pages of text no longer had to be retyped to correct simple errors, and projects could be worked on, stored, and then retrieved for use later on.”Wikipedia

The Degree of Transformation

The effect illustrates the degree of transformation that word processing had on secretarial work as well as management work.

“In 1971, a third of all working women in the United States were secretaries, and they could see that word processing would affect their careers. Some manufacturers, according to a Times article, urged that “the concept of ‘word processing’ could be the answer to Women’s Lib advocates’ prayers. Word processing will replace the ‘traditional’ secretary and give women new administrative roles in business and industry.”

A 1971 article said that “Some [secretaries] see W/P as a career ladder into management; others see it as a dead-end into the automated ghetto; others predict it will lead straight to the picket line.” The National Secretaries Association, which defined secretaries as people who “can assume responsibility without direct supervision,” feared that W/P would transform secretaries into “space-age typing pools.””

Digital word processing was so transformative that it was difficult to predict how it would change what was a specialized task of typing and remove it from specialists (secretaries) and distribute it to everyone.

“The article considered only the organizational changes resulting from secretaries operating word processors rather than typewriters; the possibility that word processors might result in managers creating documents without the intervention of secretaries was not considered—not surprising in an era when few managers, but most secretaries, possessed keyboarding skills.” – Wikipedia

But when did the digital transformation of writing occur?

Well, decades ago.

After the 1970s, the distribution of word processing widened quite significantly. But we are now at the point where most of the population has little experience using a typewriter, and they are now museum pieces.

Why Use the Term Digital Transformation Decades After it Would Apply?

A problematic feature of the term digital transformation relates to when this term has begun to be used. The enterprise software space is mature.

Why has this term surfaced at this time? What about previous IT implementations, if they were successful, were they not also “digital transformation?” If it is the case that nothing dramatic has changed other than hardware becoming faster (which is part of a long-term trend that is always occurring) and software seeing a slight improvement. Then why, at this point, are we using the term digital transformation to describe system implementation?

Does, for instance, the increase in the use of SaaS/cloud as a software delivery mechanism mean that software is becoming “more digital” that it was before? No. Whether software is hosted on the customer’s premises, hosted by the vendor as part of a private cloud, or is true multitenant cloud delivery in each case, it is the same amount of digital.

If we look back at the transition from manual computation to using mainframes back in the 1970s, wouldn’t that stage of computer history be more digitally transformative than moving to a slightly faster ERP system or implementing a new CRM system?

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The term digital transformation is a throwback to an age when digital technologies transformed processes. Still, at this point, it makes little sense to use it as a term as what is currently happening is that new hardware and software are merely replacing older hardware and software.

The term digital transformation, as it is presently used, is a term of propaganda. The term does not carry any information but is an attempt to place a spin on an initiative. For example, as soon as a company states it is implementing software, it is already understood that the software will be digital. It is unnecessary to add the flourish that it is part of a “digital transformation.” Therefore, users of the term are not describing something as much as they are promoting something through the use of a term, which is an undeniable redundancy in language.

If you intend to purchase an automobile, it is well understood that you want to use it for transportation. One does not announce to one’s friends and family that one intends to purchase an automobile for “transportation transformation.” That term may have made sense back in 1910 if you were buying a Model T, and when you were replacing your horse. But over 100 years later, it is unlikely that your previous vehicle of transportation was a horse, and that this new car you are purchasing is your first experience with something that uses wheels to get around.

So what will happen with the term digital transformation?

My prediction for the term is that its usage will continue until it gradually runs out of steam, and it will be replaced by another term that seems sexy and topical. A big part of attending the best schools, going to conferences, and participating in business meetings is merely learning the terminology to use. Using the term digital transformation is an excellent way to show that you are part of the “in-crowd.”

Financial Disclosure

Financial Bias Disclosure

Neither this article nor any other article on the Brightwork website is paid for by a software vendor, including Oracle, SAP or their competitors. As part of our commitment to publishing independent, unbiased research; no paid media placements, commissions or incentives of any nature are allowed.

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