Foley on Microsoft

Microsoft, Please Cut the Digital Transformation Hype!

With its July reorg, Microsoft finally has gone 'round the Digital Transformation bend.

I don't often use my column here at Redmond magazine to rant but this one is necessary. Digital Transformation, from here on in, "DT," has driven me over the edge. I've never found DT to be a clear or meaningful term. When I see it in print, I gloss over it. If someone says it, I tune it out.

With its July reorg, Microsoft finally has gone 'round the DT bend. The company's memorable, though vague, "Cloud-First/Mobile-First" and short-lived successor, "Intelligent Cloud and Intelligent Edge" catchphrases seem to have been left in the DT dust.

Microsoft doesn't, by any stretch, have an exclusive stranglehold on DT. It's a favorite buzz phrase among most tech vendors and consultants. Loose definitions range from "paperless office," to "business transformation involving digital technologies, data and processes." Some believe it equates to going cloud, but based on the reams of reports, white papers and think-pieces all dedicated to DT that are out there, it appears all-encompassing. Microsoft has been using DT for more than a year in its own literature, sites and executive speeches. Digital natives, digital businesses, digital taxonomy … it's all part of the same DT cloth. From what I can tell, the 'Softies use DT to cover anything where its technology (software, cloud and/or consulting services and/or hardware) is purchased. The 'Softies also add the "digital" adjective to anything that has to do with culture, transparency, security and pretty much any other big-picture term.

As one of my colleagues aptly said, DT is an amorphous term. It can and does mean anything, which basically means that it means nothing. Microsoft recently held a "Digital Difference" day in New York to highlight a bunch of recent customer wins. Customers showed off how they were using HoloLens, Blockchain as a Service on Azure and IoT. The overriding messages from Microsoft around this event were that many businesses still use legacy technologies and know their businesses are in danger of being disrupted. The solution? DT!

Microsoft execs attributed last month's sales reorg and subsequent layoffs of several thousand employees worldwide to DT. The word was that Microsoft itself was transforming digitally, and as part of that transformation to sell more DT solutions, the company needed a different kind of more technical skill set from its sales people. In fact, in the primary reorg memo that Executive Vice President Judson Althoff sent to the troops, DT and/or digital-something-or-other cropped up 13 times -- compared to one mention of "cloud" and one of "mobile." Microsoft isn't relegating DT to business-related use only. In its sales-reorg memo, Althoff extended DT to the consumer side of the house.

"Digital transformation is enabling new people-centered experiences that span work, school and home, as well as enabling new routes to market that put consumers in control of how they buy, consume and engage with brands they love," he said. Blech.

I understand marketing, especially tech marketing, requires a level of abstraction. I get that big companies want and need sweeping, aspirational statements and goals—like Microsoft's mission "to empower everyone on the planet to achieve more." But DT isn't this. It's even worse than terms such as "artificial intelligence," "cloud" and "solution," which at least have something tangible anchoring them.

Business processes aren't sexy. Workflows aren't the things of which advertisers' dreams are made. Harnessing the power of big data isn't the easiest concept to explain succinctly. But helping business customers understand and, where needed, revamp these things so that they can take advantage of new technologies -- cloud, on-premises and hybrid -- is a real and admirable goal. Putting all these eggs in a big, DT-labeled basket doesn't help customers, partners or tech vendors, in my humble opinion.

Come on, Microsoft. Don't follow the other DT lemmings into the (digitally transformed) swamp. For the past couple of years, you and your execs have been transforming your company. Now's not the time to phone it in. Digitally or otherwise …

About the Author

Mary Jo Foley is editor of the ZDNet "All About Microsoft" blog and has been covering Microsoft for about two decades. She's the author of "Microsoft 2.0" (John Wiley & Sons, 2008), which examines what's next for Microsoft in the post-Gates era.


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