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Does Digital Transformation Require a New Language?

December 3, 2021


Half a dozen years ago, journalist Rhodi Lee wrote, “The ability of humans to use language is among the things that make them distinct from other animals, but scientists were not certain as to why and how this trait has evolved.”[1] She went on to discuss a study that concluded language was developed as a direct result of one person needing to teach another person a new skill — more specifically, tool-making. Lee explained:


Thomas Morgan from the University of California at Berkeley and colleagues presented evidence that stone tool-making has played a very important role in the evolution of language and teaching among our prehistoric human ancestors. The first verbal communications, which likely happened 2.5 million years ago, were likely about tool-making. The study proposes that our human ancestors in the African savannah may have developed a primitive form of language so they could teach each other how to make stone age tools, a crucial skill for survival at the time.”


When people share a language, it can bring them together. When people don’t share a language, it can keep them apart. That is the basic premise of study published by Deloitte analysts who conclude, “Organizations still struggle to advance digital transformation. A common language that transcends technology could be the key to strategic transformation.”[2]


Language and Digital Transformation


The late Italian film director Federico Fellini once said, “A different language is a different vision of life.” According to Tricia Wang (@triciawang), a self-described Tech Ethnographer & Sociologist, digital transformation is all about promoting a different vision of life. She explains, “A lot of companies treat digital as if they are ‘doing digital’ — this is ‘digitization’ at its worst — as if it’s some checklist of things to do. It’s very transactional, and people are so busy doing digital they don’t even know WHY they are doing it in the first place! Whereas [some companies] embrace ‘being digital’ — this is ‘digital transformation’ at its best — it’s a total paradigm shift in the culture and operations — it’s not just about buying the latest digital tool, but about creating a new system, new cadence, new mindset.”[3] Getting people to understand why digital transformation is necessary does take some explaining.


For many businesses, digital transformation is a matter of survival. Deloitte analysts explain, “To survive and thrive, leaders should determine how to maintain a competitive advantage and enable an ability to win in a way that doesn’t just withstand change but embraces it to generate new strategic possibilities. An adaptive business in the 21st century is typically a digitally powered business, leading many organizations to pursue digital transformation.” They note that digital transformation efforts often raise questions. “Why do so many transformations fail to deliver concrete impact? Why is it so hard to drive cross-functional change, plan beyond one technology at a time, or create a strategy that can adapt as technology evolves and organizations shift their core assumptions?” The answer, they suggest, lies in the lack of a common language. They explain, “Creating a common, strategically linked language for digital transformation could be the answer to achieving digital advantage and adaptability.”


Many business consultants, Deloitte analysts being among them, insist that organizations established around Industrial Age concepts need to transform in order to survive in the Digital Age. Deloitte analysts insist, “The imperative for change is increasingly the creation of an adaptable business — one that can thrive in the digital economy.” In order to achieve this vision of an adaptable business, leaders must transform processes, technologies, and people. Of these three, the latter may be the most difficult. Centuries ago Niccolo Machiavelli, in his classic The Prince, wrote, “There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things, because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new.”


How Does Language Help?


Finding the right language to help personnel understand why digital transformation is necessary starts with a vision that can be supported by a coherent strategy. Often, Deloitte analysts observe, this is where digital transformation efforts go off the rails. They explain, “While 85% of CEOs accelerated digital initiatives during the pandemic, most can’t articulate their overall strategy and progress beyond that they made a tech investment.” As Wang noted, “This is ‘digitization’ at its worst.” Deloitte analysts add, “If CEOs can’t say their digital transformation resulted in new business advantages or adaptability, then they haven’t really transformed. This dichotomy between business and technology strategy underscores a broader phenomenon: Many leaders understand that technology shouldn’t drive business strategy. Yet all too often, that understanding is superseded by an impulse to ask, ‘What should our AI strategy be?’ or to respond to events by making a series of tech-first, one-off investments. The urge to think in discrete technologies can be powerful.”


They go on to note that C-level executives have different focuses and different needs. They often fail to see how improvements in other areas of the organization can help them improve their area of operations. They note, “[C-level executives] often don’t speak to each other when making tech decisions, or if they do, they struggle to effectively communicate. Digital transformation is a team sport and should use a playbook to coordinate strategies across leadership functions with consistency in the face of change.” They go on to explain, “A common language for digital transformation can enable C-suite executives beyond just the CTO or CIO to have tech-adjacent and tech-agnostic conversations that transcend any individual technology and go to the heart of their processes and culture, and how people work and interact.” Like our earliest ancestors, who needed to learn how to make tools, C-level executives need a common language to ensure things are done correctly. Deloitte analysts insist the benefits of embracing a common language include:


• An ability to break through human behavioral and structural barriers. “Everything in an organization is interconnected. Leaders across functions can speak thematically about shared needs, avoid redundant investments, address emerging risks, and change processes at scale by simply communicating better.”


• Creation of a plan beyond a single technology. “Platforms, capabilities, and initiatives often involve multiple digital and physical technologies securely working together. As these technologies combine, they become greater than the sum of their parts to bring new capabilities and greater value.”


• A path for evolving into the future. “Today’s breakthrough technology is tomorrow’s legacy tech. A common language can enable leaders to think flexibly across a matrix of business and technology needs, without having the business strategy reliant on any single technology.”


• The capability to achieve a greater strategic business value through its capacity to change and ability to win. “This approach helps organizations better align and execute against their business strategy to achieve their desired results of advantage and adaptability of the organization, humans, and technology.”


They conclude, “The language of digital transformation should have one foot on the business side and one foot grounded in downstream technology and operations, steering clear of technical terminology to ensure that all parties can understand and contribute to the conversation.”


Concluding Thoughts


The late philosopher Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein once stated, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” In the Digital Age, the limits of a company’s language may mean the limits of their digital transformation. Finding a common language that everyone understands can be difficult in a large organization — and nearly impossible in a transnational one. Deloitte analysts believe that a common language, using a framework that captures five imperatives, can be devised. Those imperatives are:


1. Experiences: “Focus on optimizing interactions with users, whether they be customers, the workforce, or other stakeholders within the ecosystem.”


2. Insights: “Assess what data, analysis, operating model, and workforce are required to enable organizational strategies.”


3. Platforms: “Focus on the location and management of information across an organization or its network.”


4. Connectivity: “Involves the flow of information between platforms, experiences, and insights, encompassing the future of the internet, and networking with other organizations and ecosystems.”


5. Integrity: “Focuses on improving resilience, security, ethical tech, and trust across all internal and external facing business systems and processes with a cyber-minded culture to address continuously evolving threats.”


Ensuring that essential processes and technologies are included in digital transformation visions and strategies is important; however, it’s even more important that the people who must implement those visions and strategies understand them. That requires a common language.


[1] Rhodi Lee, “Stone Age Butchery Tools Influenced Language Evolution More Than You Think,” Tech Times, 15 January 2015.
[2] Rich Nanda, Ragu Gurumurthy, Sam Roddick, Deborah Golden, Brenna Sniderman, and Diana Kearns-Manolatos, “A new language for digital transformation,” Deloitte Insights, 23 September 2021.
[3] Trevor Miles, “Let’s be clear: Digitization is not the same as Digital Transformation,” Kinaxis Blog, 8 December 2017.

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