Batman mural on Allen Street
Too much of the digital transformation talk focuses on the "digital." It's time to flip the equation PHOTO: Siobhan Fagan

Have you ever been struck by the sound of an old-fashioned phone ringing in the middle of a crowded restaurant or public transit stop? 

I'm betting you have. And I'll also bet the person who chose that retro ringtone was old enough to remember when that sound came from a land line. 

We hear the phrase “digital transformation” a lot these days, and it often seems to focus on only half of the equation: digital. But the popularity of that 20th century ringtone — so comforting to the Gen Xers who grew up with it — is a clear indicator where the real emphasis should be: on transformation.

Transformation, Not Technology

When we use the term digital today, we more or less use it as shorthand for anything techie and new, which means analog equals anything manual and therefore old. Like most generalizations, this is an oversimplification and is not always true.

Old sometimes also means iconic — in special cases some would even say timeless — and worth preserving. This is as true for brands and certain verities of culture, corporate and otherwise, as it is for art and architecture.

Too often, we see “digital transformation” reduced to the benefits of AI or analytics, a productivity platform or digital marketing suite when in reality it’s all these things and more. True digital transformations make use of new technologies and capabilities to refresh brand experiences and improve upon existing business processes.

Sure, sometimes that means radically reinventing them, but you’re nearly always starting with something good at the core.

Transformation's Wherever You Look

The old fashioned ringtone we started with is a great example. 

The basic need of people to communicate with one another is what drove the rotary telephone and eventually, the wholesale adoption of mobile phones. The technology underneath changed and evolved — it transformed — dramatically, but the basic need for more direct communication was the driver.  

The old-fashioned ringtone adds a warm, familiar wrapper (for a certain large segment of users, at least) around the massive evolution underneath. Make no mistake, that evolution has been radical — yet for all intents and purposes people are still using the same sound (Ma Bell) to alert them of a familiar situation (someone is calling me).

Further examples abound in popular media, which the many prophets of digital transformation should look to if they’re ever in search of easy lessons. 

Turning Good Into Great

Consider DC Comics. Superman and Batman are iconic figures in pop culture, recognizable by just about every US citizen and billions more people around the world. These fictional constructs — American folk myths, at this point — are over 75 years old, and have been reinvented constantly over that time. Yet, those reinventions always begin from the same core elements of story and character that lie at the heart of their appeal. 

Superman is always a baby rocketed to Earth from the planet Krypton. Batman is always Bruce Wayne, a wealthy orphan on a mission of vengeance against criminals. You’d be tempted to say that Ben Affleck’s current big-screen take on Batman is a far cry from Bob Kane’s creation that graced Detective Comics back in 1939. And sure, a few of the of the trappings have changed, but the core remains virtually untouched. Viewed side-by-side, the first Batman and the most recent Batman are utterly recognizable as one and the same. 

That’s just one example, and I’m sure all of us can come up with a dozen more.

This concept of taking something good — a brand, a product, a process — and making it fresh and new and often, even better, to meet the appetites and needs of a new generation of customers or employees? That is truly what we mean when we talk about digital transformation.

Applying This to Business

The comics industry that spawned Batman and Superman has itself undergone a massive digital transformation. It’s nearly impossible to find comic books at a corner store anymore (let alone find a corner store) but huge volumes of them are shipped over comic-reading apps on iOS and Android. An entire industry has changed its methods of distribution to keep up with the times and gain new customers. 

That’s a digital transformation par excellence.

Another obvious example from popular media: popular music. It’s particularly important to the conversation because it’s the industry that gave us the vocabulary of “analog” and “digital” to begin with. 

Sure, digital delivery of music has enabled plenty of new and emerging artists to get a single song directly into the hands of millennial consumers. At least as major a triumph, however — if you’re an audiophile — is the availability of streaming music from most any era on any device. The Beatles and the Stones, The Clash and the Pistols, Michael and Madonna, Blur and Oasis — all there at your fingertips for a low monthly subscription fee. That’s what I call a digital transformation.

Take Your Best Self and Make It Timeless

The idea that digital transformation is about whatever technologies we’re calling “digital” today is a mistake. It’s not about the technology. The technology is an enabler. Real digital transformation, which holds the idea of transformation at the heart of the concept, is really about applying the new to the iconic, improving it and making it timeless.

Look under the covers of your favorite brands' online experiences and that is where the real transformation occurs. How do they maintain loyalty programs? Send targeted emails and paper mailers? Recommend ancillary products? Keep you coming back? 

That’s the true transformation of the digital experience.

And what about the back end?  What processes has a company automated in order to stay competitive? What applications and infrastructure has an insurance company streamlined to lower costs while continuing to pay a consistent dividend? What modern employee experiences has a software giant invested in to retain the best and brightest talent needed to stay on top? 

These are the things that make companies what they are. They don’t need to be thrown out with the bathwater of old technology platforms — they need to be transformed, maintaining a continuity with what’s made a company great while keeping it competitive in the here and now.

Icons Renewed for the Modern Era

The surface remains recognizable. The core features we love remain the same. Batman still wears a cape and cowl, and still fights crime in a no-holds-barred style. The jingle-jangle ringtones we knew as 70s and 80s kids still tell us when Mom is calling to check up on how we’re doing. We can listen to just about any song we love, any time, anywhere.

But how those things are happening has been transformed. It’s not always about inventing something new. Far more often, it’s harnessing that innovation to ensure that the iconic remains both timeless and of the present.

Those are the truest, most effective digital transformations.