How I Learned What “Digital Transformation” Truly Means After Waving 👋 To A Couple Gs

John Maeda
4 min readDec 24, 2020
It’s just the difference of two letters, but it’s a whole different universe.

I just finished my class at MIT Sloan on digital transformation. Not teaching it, of course. Taking it.

You see, learning is a passion of mine. And I find that some things are harder to learn than others unless you really get your head in the game, which is especially hard when you have a full-time job. I reasoned that if paying for a gym membership can be a motivator to go to the gym, I needed to locate a paid way to learn WTF “digital transformation” means. I’d come into contact with it via the management consultant world and it was bugging me that I hadn’t found a crisp meaning. So I splurged on an MIT-branded experience on the topic, instead of just watching a few YouTube videos like I usually try to do. Free videos and blog posts weren’t working for some reason.

There are plenty of “digital transformation” haterz who believe that it is a lot of consultant blah-blah-blah, and ultimately a waste of time and money. That depends whether you value the difference between a painkiller (immediate impact) versus a vitamin (possible impact). IMHO digital transformation is definitely a vitamin, and yet a lot of smart people reach for it while knowing that it’s not a painkiller. They have the foresight and accountability knowing that like any carefully selected vitamin that is procured with scrutiny, taking it regularly might make you live healthier. And even better, it might help you live longer.

So I dove into my 10-week course hoping to find the underlying chemical structure of the elusive digital transformation vitamin. What I quickly discovered was that I was disturbed by how the course was delivered. As a former agent of the MIT enterprise (I was a tenured professor at MIT many moons ago), I felt slightly aghast at the quality of the 3rd party commercial e-learning platform MIT used, which obviously sat atop an open source system I knew from two decades ago. The obvious seams of the computational machinery made it difficult to ignore how each module’s content was inconsistent in structure and format.

In traditional “design” terms, this is the problem when so-called “form” (how it feels) and “content” (what it does) are not aligned. I…

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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.