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Why Digital Transformation Language Matters

If I hear the terms ‘new normal’, ‘unusual times’, ‘unprecedented’ or even ‘amid’ again, I’m going to throw my shoe at the speaker. Except that it’s been a while since I’ve worn any shoes amid these unprecedented times.

I speak in jest, although barely. We have a new crop of buzzwords for the times, and these have the potential to comfort as well as to infuriate. That’s the funny thing about buzzwords. We love to poke fun of them but cannot stop using them. If you haven’t recently used terms like synergy, best in class, take it offline, leverage, touch base, B2B, or moving the needle, then well, good for you. You’re in the minority.

The fact is, when we use code words in language, we as tribal animals experience something comforting about being a part of the group. Additionally, another reason why buzzwords and phrases are popular is that we benefit from their efficiency. It’s much easier to use terms like “boil the ocean” to replace the many words that would be needed convey the feelings of taking on a complex and impossible task. And, finally there’s the social benefit of bonding by poking fun at a common enemy. That’s equally significant.

Take the term “digital transformation” for instance. It was ranked #14 in the survey of TrustRadius’ most annoying business words of 2019. And, it was ranked #5 on their most annoying tech buzzwords behind other worthy contestants like Cloud, Internet of Things and Disruptive. However, there are two serious messages that shouldn’t be lost among all of the humor. One, that the meaning of digital transformation has evolved over time. Second, locking in on the latest precise meaning serves a hugely important business purpose.

Words can change their meaning over time

In the 1200s, the word ‘silly’ meant ‘pious’. By the end of the 13th century it meant someone who needed to be pitied. By 1570 it meant someone to be lacking in reason. Similarly, the word awful originally meant “worthy of awe”, as in the awful majesty of God. “Bully” used to mean “sweetheart“, probably originating from the original Dutch word ‘boel’ meaning lover or brother. The word “meat” originates from the Old English mete, which referred to all solid food, including even animal feed. It was only around the turn of the 14th century that it started to be used in its modern sense of animal flesh for food.

We could go on. “Girl” once meant “boy”. “Garble” used to mean “purify”. And, “egregious” used to mean “illustrious”. My favorite is the word “nice”. These days, we occasionally use it in a sarcastic context of being ignorant or terrible. The generally accepted meaning is “good”, but that’s a huge evolution of the original latin root of nescius, which literally means “unknowing or ignorant.” It’s back to where it started!

Digital transformation has roots in digits as in 0 and 1. It originally related to the reading of data in digits rather than analog form, as in “digital watches”. Alternatively, it referred to electronic forms of information, as with scanned documents. But today, that’s not what the latest buzz is about.

Precise meanings serve an important business purpose

The second insight to be emphasized is that precise language matters hugely in the industrial world. A fascinating article from Emma Green in the Atlantic on the origins of buzzwords reveals that office speak is tightly related to the evolution of modern industry. After World War II, the development of organizational science and sociology focused on improving corporate profits by creating a certain emotional atmosphere in the company. That gave birth to terms like “synergy” (which originally meant the cooperation between the human will and divine grace), and “paradigm shift”. Later, corporate-efficiency drives of the ‘80s popularized terms like “low-hanging fruit”. And then, the Wall Street financial return-on-investment sharks at the end of the 20th century gave us “leverage” and “value-add”. More recently, Silicon Valley’s success in digital technology gave the world “disrupt” and “digital transformation”.

This evolution of language underscores an important fact, i.e. companies depend on it to deliver specific organizational changes in the workplace. In other words, precise language matters. A lot!

The true meaning of digital transformation

There are three possible choices in dealing with buzzwords. We can make fun of them; we can harness them for better business outcomes, or we can fight to eliminate them. This is true of the term “digital transformation” as well. In my book Why Digital Transformations Fail, I explain why option two is the only viable choice. The reality is that we’re in the midst of the fourth industrial revolution caused by digital technologies. The only current definition of digital transformation that makes sense in this context is the process to rewire business models, business processes and people skills so that organizations which are in the third industrial revolution era can successfully exist in the fourth.

Making fun of the term or trying to eliminate it are other options, of course. Nah! Not really.

We need to sharpen our understanding of the latest meaning of the term digital transformation, and then use it for business success.