If there’s a single phrase that speaks for the desires of every modern business, it has to be digital transformation. Present in every press release, every keynote speech, and every business plan, it represents the beating heart of CIOs and IT teams everywhere that want to make their business the next Amazon or Google.

Words like seamless, omnichannel, data-driven, and of course, digital, are thrown around with wild abandon. But in 2018, what does it actually mean? Does it mean we sit on bean bags and work on tablets, or does it represent true, meaningful change?

We have clearly passed a few milestones. Talking about using cloud, for instance, is a bit like talking about using the internet; it’s rarely really worth mentioning on its own.

Of course, there are an enormous number of emerging technologies, as well as the changing infrastructure and work patterns of entire organisations that have been changed or are being changed by the cloud, and we shouldn’t overlook that. But we also have to look deeper.

True digitalisation

There are a few common threads running through a lot of research on digital transformation. Businesses need to move from tacking on some digital projects to their existing structure, to being wholly digital. They also need to embrace disruptive models and alternative revenue streams. Finally, they need to do it quickly.

Multiple studies identify groups of ‘frontrunners’ and ‘stragglers’, in the terminology of one Deloitte paper. That dichotomy represents a kind of ‘double jeopardy’ – companies that are behind are, obviously, behind, but customer expectations are also higher, which means that lack of digital transformation means lack of custom, lack of resource to transform, and so on.

That’s another important point to consider. Customer expectations simply are higher than ever. Whatever your opinion on businesses like Amazon and Google, they’ve worked hard and invested heavily to make their user experience as intuitive and seamless as possible, and that’s having a ‘trickle-down’ effect. Customers demand more of businesses, businesses of their suppliers, and workers of their employers.

The role of the CIO

And that means that the role of the CIO is changing as well. It’s often said that the role of the CIO used to be ‘keeping the lights on.’ That’s changing. In Gartner’s less colloquial parlance, the CIO is moving from being a ‘delivery executive’ to a business executive.

Gartner stats reveal that CIOs still have some catching up to do in terms of their perception of their role in the business. The 2018 Gartner CIO survey found that ‘growth’ was the top priority for CIOs, with 26% placing this as their top priority.

In comparison, 40% of CEOs in Gartner’s corresponding survey placed growth as number one. In 2017, this was even higher – at 58%. If CIOs are truly dedicated to becoming business executives rather than delivery executives, we should expect the CIO and CEO perspective to be more closely aligned.

To give CIOs some credit, 17% of respondents to the 2018 CIO survey put digital transformation as their priority. This, along with some of their other major priorities, such as innovation and new technology initiatives, suggests that senior IT people are seeing their tools and their digital transformation journeys as drivers of business growth and improved customer experience. Perhaps 2018 will be the year that the dog finally starts wagging the tail.

By their own admittance in the same research, nearly half of these organisations state that they are in the very early stages of digital transformation.

Aggravation or innovation?

“If you’re either sceptical or behind right now, you’re going to have more of a mountain to climb.” That’s according to Jeff Loucks, – executive director – Deloitte Center for TMT. “Part of what businesses are trying to do by moving to cloud is save costs, then move onto innovation. Some of it is to do with the fact that it’s a big job – they will often look to do these things sequentially, rather than both at once.”

And that’s key – there seems to be some element of paralysis here. Very few businesses will ever get to a point where they are entirely satisfied with all of their processes and believe they are meeting customer expectations in every way. Though it is important to fix and streamline what’s here and now, it’s also important for the people in charge to realise that there will never be a ‘perfect moment’ to say “this is it, this is when we become digital.”

Data: the heart of digital transformation

Data is arguably the one aspect of digitalisation that is at the heart of all transformation strategies and is perhaps at the core of the new way in which businesses operate and make money.

In IDG’s 2018 digital transformation survey, big data and analytics are already the most adopted technology. This stands to reason, with so many businesses saying their data is their biggest asset. Having an effective data strategy also links into other transformative technologies such as IoT, and tools like chatbots require huge amounts of data so that effective AI algorithms can be created.

Some believe that changing the way we interact with data will profoundly change the way we work. “At the heart of digital transformation is how we manage, secure and collaborate on information,” Aaron Levie, CEO and founder of enterprise storage firm Box, said recently.

And it’s not just about storing data in a smarter and more compliant way. Box, like many others, is applying machine learning algorithms to data to achieve much more than was previously efficient or possible. Taking metadata from thousands of hours of contact centre calls, for instance, was previously a highly labour-intensive job, but the company has developed tools to do this automatically. Digital transformation, then, is an internal and external process.

Smart data in 2018

At Box’s recent conference in London, executives also argued that the future of work will mean re-thinking how we see competitors and partners. By having close collaborative relationships with clients, partners and even competitors, it believes, all businesses can benefit and build revenue streams that previously wouldn’t have been accessible.

That also makes sense from a data perspective. The more information we have access to, through partners, clients and competitors, the more insight can be taken from it. But it’s also worth bearing in mind in the current regulatory climate that taking huge volumes of data for its own sake is not necessarily the best move.

This brings us back around to smart analysis of your data – you probably don’t need more data, you need to do more with it. Taking a smart approach to your information should be at the core of your digital transformation program.