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

Image for post
Image for post
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 felt like I personally paid for a set of training sessions at a fancy gym, and later found that each workout machine was inconsistent from the rest. Furthermore, when I peeled the Peloton sticker off of one of the machines, I discovered that it was actually a stiff, old Boeing 727 seat from my childhood memories.

But I definitely got my money’s worth from this bad experience. Because the main thesis of digital transformation is that it consists of two different kinds of activities for a business:

  • Digitizing: Taking what is an existing process or activity and making it electronic to create cost efficiencies.
  • Digitalizing: Realizing an entirely new digital business that can take on the likes of Amazon or Netflix to generate new topline revenue.

My MIT class had been digitized over a few years, as was evident by the discontinuity of the content. Over those iterations, it was able to eventually take over the job of the existing paper-based content. The course content had gotten digitized, and now could be easily reused and re-provisioned for other purposes.

Digitizing is easy, but succeeding in digitalization these days requires care and attention to the design of an experience if you are intending to charge a premium.

Then, it was likely moved to be sold on a third-party platform under the MIT brand, to bring in an entirely new revenue stream for MIT. Moving their content to this next phase was their act of digitalization. Me, the consumer, then contributed to MIT’s new topline revenue growth through Sloan’s digitalizing what had been digitized in the past.

The only glorious “bug” in this approach, however, is that I’m unlikely to ever pay for another poorly digitalized MIT Sloan product. And although I know that the course I took wasn’t in their Lexus line — it was more of a regular Toyota model, costing only a couple (versus ten) thousand dollars — it made me think how difficult it will be for higher education to digitalize what they do without a much better understanding of user experience. Digitizing is easy, but succeeding in digitalization these days requires care and attention to the design of an experience if you are intending to charge a premium.

Oddly enough, I feel like my money was entirely well spent. Maybe I should teach a course on it in the future. But, a properly digitalized one :+).

Interested in learning my dad’s fried chicken wings algorithm — I posted on that here on Medium a couple weeks back. And if the topic of How To Speak Machine interests you, there’s a book for that. Thank you for tuning in! — JM

Written by

John Maeda: Technologist and product experience leader that bridges business, engineering, design via working inclusively. Happily working at Everbridge☁️ :+).

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store