Digital transformation: Getting too big for its boots?

2017 saw a huge leap in the proportion of consulting work that was badged “digital transformation”. Some of that is genuinely new work, fuelled by technology that does, sometimes, appear to make our lives at work and home miraculously better. But most of the growth is coming from the reconfiguration of existing consulting services—strategy, operational improvement, even HR and risk. You don’t improve supply chains anymore, but digitally transform them; your HR function isn’t streamlined so much as transformed.

We could waste a lot of time arguing whether all this work is actually transformative, but that’s not the point I want to focus on here. My worry—and I always find something to worry about—is that it feels as though transformation is getting too big in conceptual, rather than material, terms. Some of the clients I’ve spoken to recently seem dazed, almost paralysed, by the scale of what might be achievable. Like children that have longed to have the run of the toy shop, they’re suddenly faced with too many possibilities; they’re running up and down the aisles but not putting things in their shopping baskets because they think that, around the corner in the next aisle, will be something even better. It’s all too big, too overwhelming, too endless. “Not a problem”, I hear some people say, “they’ll decide eventually”. But will they? Isn’t there a risk that they crawl exhausted to the checkout and buy nothing? By encouraging people to buy big, are we creating a situation in which they don’t buy at all?

This prompts me to think that the wise consulting firm would do well to consider an alternative model. Rather than building department stores, or even shopping malls filled with enticing ideas, it would come up with a small number of very simple ideas that are focused on solving a very specific client issue. This was brought home to me recently when speaking to a lawyer. Like almost everyone else we speak to, he was waxing lyrical about the broad ways in which digital technology could, in theory, be able to transform the criminal justice system. His ideas were wonderful, I’m sure, but very vague. It was only when he started talking about the impact of the police routinely wearing bodycams that his demeanour and the whole tenor of his conversation changed. In immediate, practical terms he mapped out precisely what this technology—a tiny subset of what we generally term digital—would mean for the way we gather evidence and prosecute cases. It will change how the police behave, how we behave with the police, to a point where we’ll have to rethink what we mean by evidence.

Perhaps the consulting industry should start making transformation smaller, not bigger.