Digital Transformation: A Walk-Through Guide

To gauge the state of digital transformation in business circles, consider one number from a recent Harvard Business Review/Genpact study of executives: 21%.

Across all industries, 21% of executives say they see “significant results from digital transformation in their enterprises today.”

That’s a meager sum for a phenomenon that promises profound business transformation. As it turns out, executives aren’t missing the mark due to lack of ambition. Most have digital transformation on their short list of priorities. But they may be taking the wrong approach.

In a separate HBR article, Dr. George Westerman, a research scientist with the MIT Sloan Initiative on the Digital Economy, said many of the companies he studies approach digital transformation as “just a technology question.” Those executives have fallen into the trap of thinking that digital transformation begins in the IT department, rather than in the boardroom.

Even Oracle, long a technology heavyweight, says tech isn’t the only answer. CEO Safra Catz, quoted in a February 2017 Diginomica blog post, noted this distinction: “Technology is simply valuable in letting you run your operations better. True digital transformation is about having better information so that the talent in your organizations can make better decisions…”

Those executives who have embraced the distinction see clear dividends, says MIT’s Westerman: “There was a certain class of people [in the study]—those we call the digital masters—they thought about it differently. They really thought about it not as a technology problem, but as an opportunity to transform. And they’re getting far better results.”

The Call of Digital Sirens

In the realm of buzzwords, “digital transformation” earns high marks for simultaneously conveying everything and nearly nothing at all. Beyond the buzz, what is digital transformation, also known as DX?

At its essence, digital transformation involves a company’s evolution from paper-based processes to electronic opportunities. It takes many forms, as a small survey of use cases attests:

The use cases are as varied as they are intriguing. But beware, experts advise: They are sirens, tempting executives toward the digital shoals. Beginning your digital transformation with a narrowly focused initiative will not bestow digital mastery. Many companies have tried the piecemeal approach, and only 21% are celebrating the full fruits of DX.

Leading companies embracing digital transformation

Digital Transformation: Strategy First

Executives seeking a game plan for DX will find no shortage of corporate advisors eager to help. Consultancies from McKinsey to Gartner to IDC regularly weigh in on digital transformation. Most agree on several core tenets that light the path toward a digital strategy:

(To learn more about the stages of digital transformation, listen to this podcast.)

A Recipe for Transformation

Once a company determines its digital strategy, the following activities present a reliable a path to digital transformation—formed by a combination of process change and technology support:

Let’s use a story map—a visual form of storytelling—to illustrate each step of digital transformation through the work of five innovative companies in a variety of industries.


About the author

Chris Chiappinelli is the editor of Esri’s WhereNext magazine. Through his writing, he explores the intersection of business strategy and location intelligence—and the challenges that keep executives up at night. Prior to joining Esri, Chris managed internal content for PTC, a pioneer in IoT technology, smart products, and augmented reality. Earlier in his career, Chris spent a decade as a journalist covering business and technology news.


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