It seems like wherever you look these days, companies are getting all worked up about digital transformation.  

One recent survey reports 88 percent of companies — from the largest multinationals down — identify as being in a state of digital transformation, with some pouring billions into their efforts. 

But despite all the talk, many companies are completely missing the point. 

There's a myth about digital transformation, which left unchecked can doom the efforts, waste the resources and the money businesses sink into it. It’s the idea that transformation equals digitizing existing processes. 

The truth is, it’s not enough just to “go digital” — you’ve got to see traditional processes with fresh eyes.

Old Paradigms for New Problems

When phone companies first rolled out Internet access across the US, the model was the landline. Landlines dated all the way back to the telegraph, so the Internet came through that same infrastructure, delivered by those same phone companies.

By comparison, countries that never had nationwide phone or telegraph networks bypassed the phone-line altogether. They went straight to always-on mobile Internet access, with Web services to match. As a result, some countries that are booming with mobile commerce are at the same time struggling to develop services like indoor plumbing. 

We in the US often struggle with a dependence on outdated technological paradigms more than developing countries do. It's a perfect example of why those paradigms need to change.

When Going Digital Goes Wrong

I recently bought solar paneling for my house. The company I worked with provided digital contracts, which I completed with an e-signature. Loved it. 

Unfortunately, every other step in the process took place on paper. In fact, I had to manually fill out my name and address on five different forms.

When my solar company digitized the contract process, I'm sure it was really excited about it. The problem was, it was thinking about how to optimize its process, but not my experience with that process. 

And the irony is, this company's half-baked digital process actually accomplished the opposite of optimization — it made the process more complex on its end. Because it wasn’t digital end-to-end, someone at the company still had to marry the completed digital contract with other siloed systems still managed on paper.

New Approaches

A cohesive digital process is about a lot more than just the “visual” of being online. It's about streamlining the entire experience from the customer's point of view.

A few years ago when we were in the midst of a product launch at Adobe, we asked 30 of our people to buy the software at company expense, then go through the account creation process. The feedback we got was eye opening.

We discovered that within a half hour every customer received three emails from us, each containing useful, but contradictory instructions about what to do next. 

From an inside-out perspective, all we saw was three separate processes, each of which happened to send an email. What the customer experienced was three communications from the same company on the same topic at the same time. 

Confusing to say the least.

In our case, we simply had to combine the different emails into a single, coherent message. But to see this somewhat obvious fact, we had to step back and see the digital process through our customers' eyes.

Mastering the Myth

How many of your digital processes come pre-packaged from the old world of paper and landlines? How many come as a patchwork of digital and traditional components that are actually making the process more complex for your customers, and for you? 

Digital isn’t supposed to add complexity. It’s supposed to make things simpler. 

If your company's digital transformation is creating costs and confusion, you're missing a crucial step. You've fallen for the myth that going digital just means digitizing your existing approach — or worse, only digitizing parts of it.

Before you move “the way you’ve always done it” to digital, consider bringing in some fresh pairs of eyes. Instead of reinventing the wheel, you might find the best solution doesn’t look like a wheel at all. And that’s when you’ll know you’re truly going digital.

Title image "Unicorn" (CC BY 2.0) by  B: FLO