The Digital Transformation Challenge of the 2020s



In recent years, the term ‘digital transformation’ has pervaded the business press, becoming one of those buzzwords that’s almost impossible to avoid.  But while it’s easy to mock or dismiss the catchy phrases of the day, their rise and fall is usually telling us something about developments in the real-world marketplace.  The question is: what?

For more than a decade, large organizations have been migrating to cloud computing, software-as-a-Service (SaaS), and other internet-based services.  But the global technology community now anticipates a much more powerful wave of change based upon various combinations of smart products, machine learning, algorithmic processes, robotic automation, data-driven operations, and new forms of value creation. Taken together, these capabilities comprise a vision for transformed, 21st-century organizations that look much more like today’s digital giants than the traditional global firm.  It’s hard to overestimate the potential of these changes.

But as the mountaineers say, beware of mistaking a clear vision for a short distance, as the timetable for digital transformation remains highly uncertain.  No one can say precisely when game-changing innovations will reach critical mass, how quickly machine intelligence will advance, what new platforms will be established, how China and India will alter the competitive playing field, or how different the organizations of the future will ultimately be.  No amount of data and analysis can fully answer these questions.

What we do know is that information technology has already transformed or disrupted huge parts of the global economy.  We also know that the current wave of automation and intelligence technologies holds at least as much – and I think even more – potential than anything we have seen thus far.  Despite the uncertainties, it’s hard to bet against the broad-based impact of information technology over the long course of the 2020s.  Today’s digital leaders understand this intuitively.

This tension between highly significant expected changes and highly uncertain timing shapes the digital transformation challenge today and is one of the key themes of my recent book, Seeing Digital: A Visual Guide to the Industries, Organizations, and Careers of the 2020s Over the next decade, information technology is destined to reshape just about every industry and organization – and a great many jobs -- as data, intelligence, connectivity, and automation are brought to bear on virtually every business and human activity.  And once an organization embraces this outlook, the phrase ‘digital transformation’ is no longer just a glitzy buzzword; it’s the term we use to describe the process through which 21st-century global market leadership will eventually emerge.

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