Digital transformations fail because they miss the difference that just two letters can make

John Maeda
4 min readJan 14, 2021
“Digitalization” minus “Digitization” equals “tali”

My best performing piece on Medium is “How I learned what “digital transformation” truly means after waving 👋 to a couple Gs”. In that post, I discuss how the words “digitization” and “digitalization” have completely different meanings. I couldn’t figure out why this was the case. It turns out it’s the dictionary’s fault.

If you look in a conventional dictionary, the definition of “digitalization” reads:

“Digitalization: The act or process of converting from analog to digital.”
Wordnik

And for “digitization” it reads:

“Digitization: The conversion of data or information from analog to digital or binary.”
Wordnik

So if you grow up in the normal world where dictionaries matter, you’re not going to immediately make a distinction between the two words. However, if you’re in the management consultancy space, there’s a certain utility in refining the meaning of these two words to have different meanings. And that’s what’s happened over these last five years, but I was still carrying my prejudices for what they mean according to a regular dictionary.

The word “digitalization” has come to mean making entirely new digital businesses that couldn’t have existed before computing; the word “digitization” continues mean what the dictionary says: taking something analog and making it digital. It’s just a difference of the two letters “tali” that span the chasm of a surviving business versus a thriving one.

It’s difficult to see the value of making this distinction when you come from the tech industry. We forget that some businesses are more digitally mature than others because technologies had the biggest impact in specific industries. For example, I remember in the 80s, when my former boss Nicholas Negroponte was saying outlandish things like, “Printed newspapers will begin to disappear, and you’ll read the news on a computer one day.” His vision happened, and it took twenty years for the media industry to…

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John Maeda

John Maeda: Technologist and product experience leader that bridges business, engineering, design via working inclusively. Currently VP Design and A.I. at MSFT.