Digital Transformation

Our main business is helping big brands, big media, and big tech with their digital transformation journeys. This is an awesome way to spend your day. We get to work with super-smart people who are being forced to adapt their organizations to the accelerating pace of exponential change. The process is generally known as “digital transformation.” But that is a misnomer. There’s no such thing as analog transformation, or quantum transformation. By definition, all current technological transformations are digital. It is also important to point out that technology is ephemeral – the only successful path to digital transformation is through sociological transformation – so we need a new name!

The Process Is the Product

Back in film school (NYU TSOA ’79), I was lucky enough to study under (and TA for) the legendary Haig Manoogian (mentor to the likes of Martin Scorsese, Chris Columbus, and Marty Brest, to name a few). Haig taught us that “the process is the product.” To him, the best directors were benevolent dictators with a clear vision for the desired outcome and, most importantly, the leadership skills to create a process and an environment where everyone working on the project, from the production assistants to the actor playing the leading role, was incentivized to deliver that outcome.

To do this, Haig loved to put us into impossible sociological situations with our classmates as he forced us to create short films in three-day sprints. He’d pair you with a fellow student who was to be your camera operator (even though that person was known to be terrible at it). You’d be assigned to work with another student whose role was to produce your film. By my second semester, it was clear that Haig looked at our filmmaking talent as table stakes for being in his class – he was teaching us to figure out the sociology (and the psychology) of our peers, co-workers, and subordinates and create a process that was so positive, the product created from it would be a reflection of it.

This is way easier to say than it is to do. But Haig, may he rest in peace, still teaches me to this day. Because at every corporation we work with on digital transformation, the process is the product.

Culture vs. Technology

The enduring battle between the “middle management mafia” and technology is not new. Sabotage (the ‎etymology of which will surprise you; it’s not the story you know) probably predates the Gilded Age. But this ancient sentiment echoes in the halls of modern corporate life. People fear what they don’t understand. And what they fear, they seek to destroy. This is a broad generalization, and you may not personally feel that it reflects your attitude, but almost any group, cluster, or cohort of humans you take a minute to study will, as a group, behave this way.

So, the first step to digital transformation (for which we really need a new name) is to share a clear vision and goal. “We’re going to make it faster for people to get across the river.” Then, and only then, should you begin the decision-making process to determine whether you will build a bridge, a tunnel, a tram, a people mover, a ferry fleet, a barge fleet, a transporter from Star Trek, or something else. The technology that enables the “how” is evolving exponentially fast, and the pace of that evolution is accelerating, which makes starting with technology (the “how”) a very bad idea. While the “why” may change (a competitor could disrupt your plans with a better idea that is executed in advance of yours), it is always the “why” or simply the goal that drives the cultural evolution that enables what we are calling digital transformation.

This unfortunate reality is exacerbated by an observation made by Upton Sinclair: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” Which is a long way of saying that digital transformation has nothing to do with digital and is only superficially related to transformation. It is about creating a corporate culture where people are incentivized to deliver a shared vision. If that vision happens to require some new technology, so be it. But digital transformation starts and ends in the hearts and minds of the workforce. “Technology” is just another word for “tool.”

Creating a Culture of Innovation

I am seriously looking for a new name for digital transformation. It is not only outdated; it focuses people’s attention on the wrong problem. An innovation strategy is required to accomplish the level of adaptation required to compete in the age of exponentiation, but creating a corporate culture of innovation is probably the key – it’s just not a super-catchy name. So, your assignment this week is to offer up your best ideas for a new way to describe the hackneyed name “digital transformation.” Please use less than three words and make it catchy (in a hallway handle kind of way). As Tom passed by him in the hallway on the 43rd floor, he said, “Hey Joe! What are you working on?” Without skipping a beat, Joe replied: “___________.”

Author’s note: This is not a sponsored post. I am the author of this article and it expresses my own opinions. I am not, nor is my company, receiving compensation for it.

About Shelly Palmer

Shelly Palmer is the Professor of Advanced Media in Residence at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and CEO of The Palmer Group, a consulting practice that helps Fortune 500 companies with technology, media and marketing. Named LinkedIn’s “Top Voice in Technology,” he covers tech and business for Good Day New York, is a regular commentator on CNN and writes a popular daily business blog. He's a bestselling author, and the creator of the popular, free online course, Generative AI for Execs. Follow @shellypalmer or visit



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