How Accurate Was ComputerWorld on SAP’s Simplicity Push Is Not So Simple?

Executive Summary

  • ComputerWorld, which takes income from SAP wrote an article about how simple SAP’s simplicity push was.
  • We analyze the accuracy of this article.

Introduction

On August 25, 2014 ComputerWorld published the article SAP’s Simplicity Push Is Not So Simple.

In this article, we will review the article for accuracy.

Article Quotations

“SAP has long grappled with the side effects of its software being perceived as both sophisticated enough to meet the specific needs of almost any company but also complex, expensive and unwieldy.”

SAP’s Complexity is Merely a Perception

The beginning of this article is a problem because it implies that the software is perceived. However, this is not a perception. SAP being not only complex but unnecessarily complex. This pushes the article towards probably pushing SAP’s marketing message that SAP’s obvious complexity is simply a perception. ComputerWorld has some type of financial relationship with SAP that means ComputerWorld normally acts as simply a passive marketing channel for SAP.

HANA is Attached to Everything SAP Does?

“Under CEO Bill McDermott, SAP is pledging to make both its software and its customer-interaction processes simpler. At the Sapphire conference in June, McDermott unveiled Simple Finance, one of a planned series of Hana-powered ERP applications that use the Hana in-memory computing platform and other technologies to slim down the code base and make the user interface more appealing and productive.

Hana is attached to everything we have, McDermott said in a recent interview.”

Bill McDermott is an unreliable source of information on SAP. He is a lifelong salesman with a yearly compensation of $50 million. Previous statements made by Bill McDermott have mostly proven to be untrue. Once again, he is proven wrong when he says HANA is attached to everything SAP does. Six years after its introduction, it only works with a minority of SAP applications and only has penetration into one application for implementation, which is the SAP BW.

Oracle and SAP as Big Cloud Companies?

Like rival Oracle, SAP is in a transition period as its customers, who traditionally bought perpetual licenses for on-premise deployments, look to adopt cloud-based software that is sold by subscription.

Oracle also receives the vast majority of its revenues from on-premises software. Oracle over-reports a number of sales that come from the cloud, but it not very difficult to look under the covers to find out the reality.

SAP’s Run Simple Campaign Must be Fine Tuned?

SAP may need to fine-tune its pledge for more simplicity, says independent analyst Jon Reed. SAP used to sell so much software based on its completeness of functionality, Reed says.

This is a political way of saying that SAP has overstated the “Run Simple” marketing program. Jon Reed is framing it in positive terms, implying that SAP’s complexity is necessary because SAP’s functionality is so complete.

  1. SAP does not have completeness of functionality. SAP lacks functionality where other vendors do have functionality — process industry manufacturing is just one example, and secondly, some of SAP’s functionality that is in the release notes, does not work properly.
  2. Even if a company has “completeness of functionality,” which itself more a term of propaganda rather than a real statement (a more accurate statement would be that an application has a wide breadth of functionality), it does not necessarily follow that this means a great deal of complexity. For example, the vendor Arena Solutions has a wide breadth of functionality for BOM management but is software is easy to use.

One would have to really know close to nothing about SAP to actually believe that SAP is not all of a sudden simple. The entire Run Simple campaign is simply an example of counter-marketing. That is attempting to counter a valid negative perception by asserting the opposite.

It is not declared, but Reed is a co-founder of Diginomica, which counts SAP as a funding entity. Therefore, ComputerWorld, which receives funding from SAP and does not declare this, is obtaining a quote from what appears to be an independent source, in this case, Jon Reed, but there is also not declared of Jon Reed’s relationship to SAP. (Diginomica does declare SAP’s sponsorship on the Diginomica website.) But overall this article has both a biased publisher and then employed biased sources.

But a products sheer depth of features is declining in importance as enterprise software buyers adopt newer, more specialized cloud applications.

This is an interesting observation from Jon Reed. But what this means is that SAP is losing its grip on customers. This is consistent with our primary observation of the SAP market, which is covered at [Brightwork Research & Analysis.]

Customers Tell Jon Reed that SAP is Simple to Use?

The more crucial task for SAP is to make doing business with it easier, and that work is far from done, Reed says. SAP at Sapphire put out simplicity as a leadership mantra: Were going to lead you to a simple future, he says. Its a challenge for SAP to live up to. When I hear customers tell me how simple and easy it is to deal with SAP, Ill get on board.

It is hard to fathom who is telling Jon Reed that it’s simple to use SAP. I am a long term SAP consultant going back to 1997, and to do anything in SAP is always more difficult and complex than doing that same thing in any other competing application.

This is covered in the article [Is SAP’s Run Run Simple Real?]

DSAG on the Simple Story

“SAPs message of simplicity is a good story for customers, says Marco Lenck, chairman of DSAG, a German SAP user group. This is the right direction for customers, but it takes investment in terms of time, knowledge and money to get there.”

Marco Lenck’s quotation here is golden. Marco very nice puts the simplicity story in a box, by calling it what it is. He then basically says that SAP has a lot of work to do in the area.

DSAG is really the only SAP user group that does anything close to its mission of representing user interests to SAP. The only one that has the courage to actually stand up to SAP.

Simple is So Hard!

“One CIO of an SAP shop agrees. Simple is really hard, says David Wascom, CIO of Summit Electric Supply and a board member of the Americas SAP Users Group, because all the steps that have to take place in your business dont go away.”

This is more justifying SAP’s unnecessary complexity. What do “all the steps that have to take place not going away” have to do with SAP’s complexity? Complexity is primarily a feature of software design, and SAP designs extremely complex software, but not because the problem it is solving is particularly complex. A good example of this is the SNP optimizer. The SNP optimizer has a bad design. Other optimizers are far easier to use while SNP’s is essentially useless. It seems that this article is commingling complexity with bad design. A good measure of software design is how something that is complex can be made simple to use. A good example of this is Airtable. Airtable makes relational databases almost as easy to use as a spreadsheet. The complexity is hidden from the user.

SAP Becoming More Simple?

“Wascom says that he is seeing some signs of improvement lately from SAP, but he’s hoping for more. One of the biggest challenges I have as a business executive is not how to get SAP to give me some particular piece of functionality, he says. The challenge is managing the risk of my SAP investment. To that end, SAP should improve customers visibility into its product road maps, Wascom says.”

This is actually a pretty severe dig at SAP, if you follow SAP. This is because SAP has probably the most confusing product roadmaps of any software vendor. The reason for this is SAP is constantly proposing things in their roadmaps that they are not able to deliver. They allow marketing to control the roadmap and more or less tell development what they will do and when they will do it rather than the other way around. This is because at SAP sales and marketing is far more powerful than development.

But that is actually a slightly different issue from the complexity of the software itself.

Does this Quotation Qualify as a Big Message?

“While committed to SAP technology, Wascom offered cautionary advice to any fellow CIOs who are considering the company’s products.

The big message is that SAP, among the platforms I’ve looked at, is the most powerful and most flexible to meet whatever your business needs are, he says. But with great power comes great complexity. Its not like installing Microsoft Word.”

This is a strange comparison. Microsoft employs no one to install Word, it self-installs. SAP projects fund millions of consultants worldwide and SAP projects can go on for years. This is a major driver of revenues for major multinational consulting companies.

At this point, it seems reasonable to assume that people reading this article would know that SAP does not self-install. This quotation seems designed to minimize expense and complexity and SAP.

And once again, the statement is that complexity is a trade-off for some virtue. But SAP is far too complicated for what it does, and its complexity is a hindrance to using it effectively. I can provide a long list of software vendors that cover the same areas as SAP, but which has far less complexity because they are simply better designed. The best software works this way.

SAP Needs Ombudspeople?

“SAP would benefit from having simplicity ombudspeople who would guide customers through difficult software migrations and improve the entire customer experience, says independent analyst China Martens.”

Isn’t that what large SAP consulting companies are supposed to do? Aren’t they supposed to be independent?

China Martens has to know that SAP gets very little revenue from consulting, and that SAP outsourced it’s consulting in return for being recommended decades ago. Secondly, the software must be designed better, putting consultants on the issue will really only do so much good. But secondly, SAP’s support has been greatly degraded, so now customers are far more frequently left to fend for themselves than in the past.

Also, SAP will never employ any person who supports the customer’s interests to SAP. That is not the way that SAP operates. Even the large consulting companies, who don’t technically report to SAP, behave as if they do, putting the interests of SAP ahead of those of their clients.

Conclusion

This is a ridiculous article that has ComputerWorld simply allowing a framework to be built up where SAP in a way is praised for trying to become less complex. Still, it contained insights from some of the quotations which showed clear frustrations with SAP but were couched in a way so as not to seem too critical of SAP. ComputerWorld receives a 3.5 out of 10

ComputerWorld is not actually checking on anything provided to them. This is a very low-quality way to write an article.

Three years after this article was written, the Run Simple marketing campaign was canceled a while ago. It’s only impact was to be used by sales and marketing to try to deceive customers and prospects into thinking that SAP was something that it isn’t, which is simple.

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.

Search Our Other SAP Content

SAP Contact Form

  • Interested in Our SAP Research?

    The software space is controlled by vendors, consulting firms and IT analysts who often provide self-serving and incorrect advice at the top rates.

    • We have a better track record of being correct than any of the well-known brands.
    • If this type of accuracy interests you, contact us and we will be in touch.

References

[SAP’s Simplicity Push Is Not So Simple | IT Vendors | Computerworld UK](https://www.computerworlduk.com/it-vendors/saps-simplicity-push-is-not-so-simple-3539591/)

Enterprise Software Risk Book

Software RiskRethinking Enterprise Software Risk: Controlling the Main Risk Factors on IT Projects

Rethinking Enterprise Software Risk: Controlling the Main Risk Factors on IT Projects

Better Managing Software Risk

The software implementation is risky business and success is not a certainty. But you can reduce risk with the strategies in this book. Undertaking software selection and implementation without approximating the project’s risk is a poor way to make decisions about either projects or software. But that’s the way many companies do business, even though 50 percent of IT implementations are deemed failures.

Finding What Works and What Doesn’t

In this book, you will review the strategies commonly used by most companies for mitigating software project risk–and learn why these plans don’t work–and then acquire practical and realistic strategies that will help you to maximize success on your software implementation.

Chapters

Chapter 1: Introduction
Chapter 2: Enterprise Software Risk Management
Chapter 3: The Basics of Enterprise Software Risk Management
Chapter 4: Understanding the Enterprise Software Market
Chapter 5: Software Sell-ability versus Implementability
Chapter 6: Selecting the Right IT Consultant
Chapter 7: How to Use the Reports of Analysts Like Gartner
Chapter 8: How to Interpret Vendor-Provided Information to Reduce Project Risk
Chapter 9: Evaluating Implementation Preparedness
Chapter 10: Using TCO for Decision Making
Chapter 11: The Software Decisions’ Risk Component Model

How SAP Used and Abused the Term Legacy

Executive Summary

  • There is a history of the term legacy systems in IT.
  • SAP provides false information regarding their ability to replace legacy.
  • SAP has misused the term legacy to meet their sales goals.

Introduction

So as part of my series on SAP as legacy which began with How SAP is Now Strip Mining Customers, I wanted to write an article to describe how SAP and other vendors deliberately misused the term legacy over the past several decades. In this article, I will show how important the adoption of words like legacy is and how they shape opinions and can influence purchase decisions.

So to begin, let us review the term legacy as it applies to systems.

The Definition of the Word Legacy or Legacy System in IT

“In computing, a legacy system is an old method, technology, computer system, or application program, “of, relating to, or being a previous or outdated computer system.”[1] Often a pejorative term, referencing a system as “legacy” means that it paved the way for the standards that would follow it. This can also imply that the system is out of date or in need of replacement. By the 1980s it was commonly used to refer to existing computer systems to distinguish them from the design and implementation of new systems. Legacy was often heard during a conversion process, for example, when moving data from the legacy system to a new database. While this term may indicate that some engineers may feel that a system is out of date, a legacy system may continue to be used for a variety of reasons. It may simply be that the system still provides for the users’ needs. In addition, the decision to keep an old system may be influenced by economic reasons such as return on investment challenges or vendor lock-in, the inherent challenges of change management, or a variety of other reasons other than functionality. Backward compatibility (such as the ability of newer systems to handle legacy file formats and character encodings) is a goal that software developers often include in their work.Even if it is no longer used, a legacy system may continue to impact the organization due to its historical role. Historic data may not have been converted into the new system format and may exist within the new system with the use of a customized schema crosswalk, or may exist only in a data warehouse. In either case, the effect on business intelligence and operational reporting can be significant. A legacy system may include procedures or terminology which are no longer relevant in the current context, and may hinder or confuse understanding of the methods or technologies used.”Wikipedia

The term legacy should not be confused or mingled with the term obsolete.

Secondly, a legacy system does not have a specific timeframe for replacement.

An Implied Timeframe for Replacement?

This is explained by more of the quotation from Wikipedia:

Organizations can have compelling reasons for keeping a legacy system, such as:

“The system works satisfactorily, and the owner sees no reason to change it. The costs of redesigning or replacing the system are prohibitive because it is large, monolithic, and/or complex. Retraining on a new system would be costly in lost time and money, compared to the anticipated appreciable benefits of replacing it (which may be zero). The system requires near-constant availability, so it cannot be taken out of service, and the cost of designing a new system with a similar availability level is high. Examples include systems to handle customers’ accounts in banks, computer reservations systems, air traffic control, energy distribution (power grids), nuclear power plants, military defense installations, and systems such as the TOPS database.”Wikipedia

All of this illustrates the fact that a legacy system can still be adding a great deal of value.

However, through time SAP never applied this concept to the term. Instead to SAP, designating a system as legacy was seen as a way to identify it as the replacement, and as a replacement by a SAP system of course.

How the Term “Legacy” Evolved Over Time

The final portion of the definition from Wikipedia on legacy demonstrates that the term legacy evolved.

“Alternative view[edit]
There is an alternate point of view — growing since the “Dot Com” bubble burst in 1999 — that legacy systems are simply computer systems that are both installed and working. In other words, the term is not pejorative, but the opposite. Bjarne Stroustrup, creator of the C++ language, addressed this issue succinctly:

“Legacy code” often differs from its suggested alternative by actually working and scaling.

— Bjarne Stroustrup
IT analysts estimate that the cost of replacing business logic is about five times that of reuse,[citation needed] and that is not counting the risks involved in wholesale replacement. Ideally, businesses would never have to rewrite most core business logic; debits must equal credits — they always have, and they always will. New software may increase the risk of system failures and security breaches. The re-examination of attitudes toward legacy systems is also inviting more reflection on what makes legacy systems as durable as they are. Technologists are relearning that sound architecture, practiced up front, helps businesses avoid costly and risky rewrites in the first place. Poorly designed systems often don’t last, both because they wear out and because their reliability or usability are low enough that no one is inclined to make an effort to extend their term of service when replacement is an option. Thus, many organizations are rediscovering the value of both their legacy systems themselves and those systems’ philosophical underpinnings.”Wikipedia

Legacy Equals “To Be Replaced by SAP”

And in fact, many of the systems designated as legacy by SAP were never replaced by SAP. This was one of the common disappointments on the part of companies that purchased SAP, particularly SAP’s ERP system, who often purchased SAP ERP, and other ERP systems to obtain a simplified system landscape and to drive down costs.

However, the proposition was never particularly accurate as SAP ERP never maintained the breadth of functionality necessary to decommission so many legacy systems. And the concept of best practices contained in SAP was also similarly oversold. This is explained well by a quote from KC Richards, a consultant with decades of database and development experience.

“My first encounter with term “Legacy Systems” was during the adoption period of RDBM systems, mid to late eighties. Yes, there was a time when you could put your job in jeopardy in even suggesting that you would include a “Relational Data Base Management System” in a software architecture. ISAM, flat files, and other creative indexing techniques where the safe way to go. In the decade before, Dr. Codd (IBM System R – “In Codd we Trust”) and Michael Stonebraker (Ingres) where competing over definition of what exactly made up a relational database and what was the most logical data manipulation languages. SQL or QUEL?

Each of the pioneers of relational theory were working on their own products. Larry Ellison was porting his RDBMS on every hardware platform her could find. Sybase was working with Microsoft to license “Data Server”, a database product originally built to run on UNIX computers. That work led to a product called Ashton-Tate/Microsoft SQL Server 1.0 (I remember being a beta user). Anything on a RDBMS was Avant-guard, everything else became “legacy”.

Repeating Historical Patterns in IT

I found this point of KC Richard’s quotation, particularly of interest. Here is why and it is quite pertinent to SAP. According to SAP, relational (actually row oriented) databases are now legacy, and column-oriented databases are recommended by SAP.

As I have covered in multiple articles on HANA such as When Articles Exaggerate HANA’s Benefits, this is an oversimplification. Column-oriented databases have a specific purpose, and their benefits do not generalized to all usage types.

Let us continue where KC Richards states:

“Then came the next generation of “legacy” markers. “If you were not GUI, you were chewy” Then “Legacy Systems” were those not written in “newer” object oriented languages to take advantage of newer hardware platforms. “Legacy Systems” became those that didn’t have GUI screens. Windows 3.1, Macintosh, and OS/2.

Legacy has become that term used to conveniently play on the fears of a company that get define where its sunk costs rest, usually because they have lost track of what they expect of a system. Oddly enough, data entry is still more efficiently on green screens than GUI applications. Legacy systems are simply what you have when you get them.”

This gets to a great point by KC Richards.

What is legacy?

  • Is legacy a term that we simply accept as what is trendy at the time?
  • Is it about usage or about what is new?
  • Are software vendors using this term honestly or is this marketing and perception?

SAP’s Relationship with the Word Legacy

They would simply declare all systems that were developed in-house as legacy.

But that it not a correct use of the term. Legacy systems are the systems for which companies want to reduce their maintenance and future investment. But they are not necessarily systems that can be economically replaced. For example, there were many things that home built systems did that still were required and that SAP would never do.

Porting the functionality to SAP does not solve this basic issue. You are simply porting code to SAP, but that does not mean SAP is “actually doing it.” That is just ported code.

Also, as we are on the topic, why port code to SAP in the first place? Why not simply keep the existing system working and integrate these systems to SAP. When porting to SAP, it means portion what was in most cases an open language like C to a proprietary language of ABAP which does not have a similar development efficiency.

This means that maintenance and costs invariably increase. This is how SAP radically increased the costs for a large number of companies. The TCO for SAP systems was far higher than anyone anticipated, and the costs of customizing SAP was higher and is now more rigid than creating customizations in open systems. SAP’s own development approach, as well as ABAP, can be considered the “legacy” of going with SAP, which meant adoption of their vision of development.

Misuse of the Term Legacy

There is a distinction between legacy and obsolete.

Let me provide a specific example, which is the US rail system.

The US Rail System

The US has roughly 98,000 miles of railroad track. This track is old, but it is not legacy. And why not provides important insights as to how the term legacy should be used.

  • Rail is far more fuel efficient and cost-effective than motor transport.
  • The US would have a very difficult time delivering freight without this rail system.
  • Maintenance should not be minimized on the US network of rails; in fact, maintenance should be kept to a high level. The US should not shrink the total number of miles of track (as we have in the past) but should expand them to take freight off of the roads, which is a highly energy-intensive and polluting way to move freight.

Now let us look at another system.

The US Road System

The US has around 4 million miles of roads. Most of these roads were built after the rail network. There have most likely been too many miles of roads created. This is primarily because they were created during a time of low-cost oil. Due to global consumption versus attainable supplies, this looks sure to not be the case in the future. In fact, the proliferation of the automobile is causing human civilizations to use up the global petroleum stock far faster than it would have the automobile not seen such wide usage.

Therefore, while some of the 4 million miles of roads are needed, some are probably going to be legacy as auto travel will need to come down in the coming decades.

So while the road network in the US is partially legacy, none of the rail networks would qualify as legacy. Thus, the age of the items is not the primary driving factor in determining whether something should be considered legacy. Legacy is all about usage or expected usage.

That is legacy is all about usage or expected usage. Not age.

Towards an Accurate Usage of the Term Legacy

In this article, I am attempting to describe the term legacy by its objective definition. I don’t make more money if people use it correctly, I don’t make less money if people use it correctly. However, the same cannot be said for software vendors.

I don’t know how all the software vendors use the term legacy, but as I study SAP documentation and SAP statements and I know how SAP uses the term legacy. When SAP uses the term legacy, they mean any applications that were built by their customer. Or when that application is developed by a competitor. SAP used the term legacy to describe all CRM systems that are not SAP’s CRM system.

SAP used the term inaccurately and in the most self-centered and disrespectful sense to diminish the systems that the customers already had. SAP very much pushed forward the concept and the highly dubious concept of best practices which seeks to propose, and to propose falsely that all business processes either fall into SAP’s software flows, or they are illegitimate. In fact, SAP continues to make this argument regarding customizations for their new ERP system, S/4HANA.

“Another key “how” question we hear S/4HANA adopters frequently debating is their approach to customization. Typically, customers have tended to heavily customize their existing SAP ECC on-premise deployments and, in moving to S/4HANA, organizations can rethink their business processes, which may result in more simplicity and avoid the need for a lot of customization.”ASUG

*This quote is from ASUG, but as ASUG is simply a marketing arm for SAP, I do not draw any distinction between statements from ASUG and statements from SAP. This is SAP’s position on customizations. SAP was wrong when it proposed that customers would be able to move to “best practices” with earlier versions of their ERP system, and they will be wrong again when S/4HANA is broadly implemented. 

Conclusion

SAP misused the term legacy on countless sales engagements. They used the term as a term of propaganda. So what does that mean? When a term is used this way, it is used not to describe something accurately, but just the opposite. The intent of the user is to describe inaccurately and to make the listener more amenable to what the message.

A second important characteristic of what defines when a term is used as propaganda is that and often without having to provide evidence to support the claim. And if we observe how SAP used the term legacy, there was never a case by case analysis at companies whether the functionality could be replaced by SAP. Whether it was a good idea to customize it into SAP if it could not be replaced, etc.. That would have taken a lot of work, and in many cases, the outcome would have been both that SAP did not have the functionality and that it made no sense to port the functionality to SAP. But most executive buyers preferred to not do this work, and buy whatever was trend (what everyone else was buying).

It was much easier to simply use the blanket term legacy, to paper over or obscure all of that analysis. Rather than being analytical, the use of the term legacy seems specifically designed to appeal to emotion and to fashion. To a concept of there being an “in crowd ” and and “out crowd.” Companies wanted the new great stuff that SAP offered, and did not want to be stuck with “legacy.” One wonders how many decisions to go with SAP or other similar vendors when this term was in its heyday, simply to present the impression that the company was hip and with the times.

The fashion industry is based upon a premise that its customers need to get the new items, which have higher social status. If you don’t buy the newest items, you are stuck wearing legacy garments. Companies are presented in business school textbooks as highly rational, and one would generally not think that decisions work the same way. However, the term legacy is essentially the same strategy to motivate purchasing behavior as the fashion industry

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.

Search Our Other SAP Content

SAP Contact Form

  • Interested in Our SAP Research?

    The software space is controlled by vendors, consulting firms and IT analysts who often provide self-serving and incorrect advice at the top rates.

    • We have a better track record of being correct than any of the well-known brands.
    • If this type of accuracy interests you, contact us and we will be in touch.

References

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Legacy_system

https://www.asug.com/news/asug-research-what-asug-members-tell-us-about-sap-s-4hana-and-sap-hana-cloud-platform-adoption

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 major problem using the term to describe IT implementations.
  • This is a good 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.

Introduction

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 important to see the different aspects of the definition 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 a 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 constantly. 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 constantly on the road, the GPS and now the Google Map enabled phone or tablet has truly 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 ways 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 which 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?

No.

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 where over a nine-year period he wrote books that are now considered classics in literature. At the center of the room was a very small 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 electric, 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, in fact, 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 degree of transformation is illustrated by the effect 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, relatively speaking.

Why has this term surfaced at this time? What about previous IT implementations, if they were successful were they not also “digital transformation?” If 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, why at this point in time 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?

Conclusion

The term digital transformation is a throwback to an age when digital technologies transformed processes, but at this point, it makes little sense to use it as a term as what is currently happening is that new hardware and software is simply 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 simply learning the terminology to use. Using the term digital transformation is a good way to show that you are part of the “in crowd.”

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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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References

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Analog_signal

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_transformation

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Word_processor