Foundations of the digital transformation

Because “digital” is such a broad concept rooted in so many different aspects of our lives, it’s difficult to keep up with what all this terminology means anymore – even more so when it comes to explaining what digital transformation is. Companies use it to create and sell their products, governments talk about “digital transformation policies” and “smart” societies, and we see it as a way of doing everything faster, smarter, more efficiently and more profitably.


Basic terminology: mapping the digital confusion

Digitisation, digitalisation or digital transformation? What is the difference? The most basic forms of digital terminologies, often used as synonyms, are digitisation and digitalisation.

Digitisation refers to the technical process of taking analogue information and encoding it into a digital format so that computers can store, process, and transmit that information. For example, converting handwritten or typewritten text into digital form by scanning it is an example of digitisation.

On the other hand, digitalisation is a broader concept. It is a process that is aimed at changing how work gets done and transforming how individuals and companies engage and interact, going beyond the implementation of digitised data and digital technologies.

Because digital transformation looks different for each sector and for each individual, it is hard to pinpoint a definition that applies to all.

Broadly speaking, digital transformation refers to the integration of digital technologies into all areas of activity resulting in fundamental changes to the way we carry out those activities and how they deliver value for us and society as a whole. In this sense, digital transformation is about much more than just automation; it is about change and how technology will change habits, behaviour and lives. It transcends all boundaries: political, economic, social, technological, theological, psychological, legal and environmental, to name a few.

The drivers for digital transformation

1) Creativity

Believe it or not, a key driver of digital transformation is one key human trait – creativity. It is our capacity to generate or recognise ideas and alternatives to solve problems or meet specific needs, coupled with the possibilities offered by technology to solve problems or to change or gain new perspectives, that leads to new uses and applications of technology in all areas of our lives, eventually leading to a deep transformation of a discipline.

When talking about digital transformation, we therefore need to look at the bigger picture. It lies at the intersection of technology and creativity in applying digital transformation to new or different-than-usual contexts, coupled with an acceptance and broad adoption of these technologies because of their high added value, ultimately leading to changed or completely new behaviours.

2) Diversity

Following this thread leads to another enabling factor of the digital transformation, that is diversity. On one side, we are talking about diversity in methods and tools used with the support of digital technologies, and on the other side about the diversity of those who design these tools as well as those for whom they are designed. It’s rooted in the fact that digital transformation is really about cultural change more than anything else.

In essence, technology is highly people-centric, meaning that it is designed to serve people, with their different needs and preferences, and therefore thrives on input from as many different perspectives as possible. Going one step further, the concept of inclusion leverages diversity, in all its forms – age, race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, religion, socioeconomic background and personality – and strives to include them in all stages of creating technology. People trust organisations that can demonstrate that they understand them, anticipate their needs and innovate in a way that is customised perfectly to them.

A diverse group of people using different digital devices
A diverse group of people using different digital devices

Diversity matters for us all

The case for why diversity matters in the way technology is developed is highlighted in the automobile industry. Despite huge advancements in road safety technology, a study published in 2019 by The University of Virginia showed that women are 73% more likely to suffer a serious injury or fatality during a car accident than men. This is partly because the crash dummy – used as standard by international safety agencies and all car companies – is designed with the average male as the test height, weight, and body structure.

The researchers say females are more susceptible to injury during car accidents because of differences in bone and muscular structure, the positioning of head and seatbelt restraints, and their shorter stature and preferred seating posture. It’s not enough to take a male dummy and scale it down. There are important physiological differences between men and women that cause them to react differently during a car crash. That’s why it’s important to account for these biomechanical and material differences when designing dummies for crash tests.

3) Digital literacy

Moreover, digital transformation would not be possible without people having the ability to use the information and communications technology needed to understand and thrive in digital cultures. This is generally referred to as digital literacy.

Digital literacy is crucial because it helps us make sense of a rapidly changing world of technology which gives us access to vast amounts of information, but that is often driven by commercial agendas and which for many reasons can be difficult to interpret.

Like many concepts related to the digital sphere, digital literacy is quite broad and it evolves as fast as digital technologies themselves. We can say that digital literacy is more than technological know-how; it includes a variety of ethical, social and reflective practices that are part of work, learning, leisure and daily life.


Digital native or digital immigrant: what are you?

You might have heard about “digital natives”, the young generation who grew up using smartphones, tablets or computers and is at ease with technology. How about everyone else? Those who were born before the spread of digital technology and who are not “native speakers” of technology are referred to as “digital immigrants”.

These two categories are used to broadly describe the attitudes of the two groups towards digital technologies, with digital natives being more comfortable and active users of technology, while digital immigrants are considered to be less enthusiastic users.

However, while there are many other factors that influence a person’s attitude towards technology, we can definitely say that these very differences in approaching technology is what adds value to the way technology is being shaped. There is opportunity in learning from each other. Collaboration is key because digital immigrants have invented many of the technologies in the first place and digital natives are the ones who use them fluently. Having a variety of people with different abilities and experiences is crucial to improving technology!

The digital divide

However, not everybody is able to fully benefit from the advantages of a digital society, as some people don’t have access to modern information and communications technology (ICT). This phenomenon is called the “digital divide”, and although it initially referred only to the question of internet access – who is connected to the internet and who isn't – the term has extended its meaning to include the use divide (lack of digital skills hindering the handling of technology) and quality of use gap (knowledge to make good use of and get the most out of digital technologies).

It is important to be aware of the challenges arising from the digital divide because it deprives some citizens of essential resources for development, with negative effects on society as a whole, such as increasing unemployment, social inequalities and an increased risk of marginalisation, to name a few.

The process of digital transformation is continuous, and it keeps disrupting sector after sector. In the next section, we will look at the sectors that have been impacted the most and what it means for the future.

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III. Digital transformation of society