What’s the difference between digital transition and digital transformation?

Justin Daab Customer Experience Design

Caught between a platform and a paradigm

Often swapped out for one another, digital transition and digital transformation actually differ greatly in focus and, usually, in scope. Digital transition focuses on the basic (though still potentially massive) shift from analog, or physical, information to that which is stored, recalled or manipulated, using a digital platform. There may or may not be advantages like improved speed, accuracy, reliability, privacy, etc., but generally, we’re talking about facilitating exiting behaviors and transactions with new digital tools. Digital transformation involves a change in how the enterprise or institution structures relationships or conducts transactions enabled by technology. Let’s take a look at a few examples of related transitions and transformations to get a better feel for the nuance.

Email vs. marketing automation

When email became pervasive in most businesses, it was a perfect example of a digital transition. Correspondence had shifted from something that moved via paper and stamps and was stored in folders and file cabinets to something that moved via the internet and, ultimately, was stored in local or cloud-based servers or on hard drives.

When marketing automation systems like Marketo, Pardot and Mailchimp, et al. were introduced, they represented a digital transformation. More than simply moving the original behavior (correspondence) onto a new digital platform, these systems enabled fundamentally different, previously unavailable interaction models, e.g., automated and behavior-driven campaigns, mass customization, etc.

Electronic medical records (EMR) vs. telemedicine

I am old enough to remember the introduction of tablet computing, e.g., the GRiDPad, the Apple Newton, etc., and their niche application within the medical industry. These represented one of the first digital transitions of medical records to the EMR space. The use case was narrow, replacing patient flip charts in hospitals, mainly. This puts the adoption of those devices squarely into the digital transition category.

Let’s contrast that with recent telemedicine initiatives. A specific example would be stroke telemedicine. Effective stroke treatment depends highly on reducing the time between a stroke event and the administration of proper treatments. The problem is that most small or rural locations do not have the resources to keep a qualified neurologist on staff or on call. But, utilizing a series of networked toolsÑfrom video conferencing to real-time, remote radiological consultations—time-critical treatments can be provided at the smaller facility in time to reduce stroke-related disabilities prior to the patient being moved to a more-equipped facility. It’s a new, transformed approach, enabled by digital technologies.

Electronic banking vs. bitcoin

At this point, if I am correctly channeling the proper step-and-repeat cadence of Malcolm Gladwell, you are likely able to review the previous two examples and see quite clearly, from the subhead alone, where I am going with this one. But that won’t stop me from writing it myself.

While it might be fair, ways, to characterize the financial industry’s early shifts to online banking as a digital transformation, perhaps, due only to my personal biases, I am inclined to file it under digital transition. It had no real effect on the business model, how fees were assessed, etc. What was arcane or cumbersome in meatspace banking remained so in cyberspace banking. How money was tracked, transferred or otherwise accounted for remained basically unchanged.

Contrast that with bitcoin (or your cryptocurrency of choice). Blockchain technology decentralized the ledger, anonymized the transaction and made banking decidedly not institutional. Definitely a digital transformation (not to mention, potentially, a major long-term disruption).

In the end, it boils down to media vs. methodology

It’s a pretty simple heuristic but, in this case, an effective one. If the change is a conversion from one format of storage (in most cases analog to digital) to another, it’s surely transition you’re talking about. If the project involves changing the methodology of how a company or customer gets from point a to point b, it is a transformation. Okay, one last analogy: Electric cars—transition . Self-driving cars, transformation.

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