Defining Digital Transformation: Let’s Start With Participate!


This is a guest post by Dr. Kenneth E. Russell, Vice President of Digital Transformation and Chief Information Officer at Pfeiffer University.

It’s great to see discussions and questions regarding Digital Transformation beginning to emerge. For the past few years or so, it’s been top of mind with so many of the folks I’ve been around and I’ve talked with – not just in Silicon Valley, the Silicon Prairie or even the Research Triangle.

I’ve heard people talking about Digital Transformation in grocery stores, at the football game and even at the home improvement stores on sleepy Saturday mornings. Everywhere.

I recently spoke about this at the Blackboard Analytics Symposium. Check out my 5×5 presentation.

Digital Transformation has been THE hot issue with hobbyists, students and even my Aunt Grace’s garden club.



Nearly every aspect of our lives over the past 10 years have been transformed (meaning: changed permanently) by the integration of some type of technology and the accompanying measures and metrics.  What some have called Big Data, or what we’ve colloquially referred to as Analytics. Here are just a few of those instances:

  • Self-check-out in the grocery stores – and the data consumed and shared with both shopper (coupons) and manufacturers (where is the most ketchup sold?)
  • Apps on our mobile phones that help us participate in venue specific surveys and games – at sporting events, concerts, street fairs (all helping the organizers learn more about us)
  • Frequent shopper affinity cards that make it easier for me to return the extra 10 sheets of plywood I didn’t really need (and remind me to change the water filter in the fridge I bought three years ago.)
  • The ability, not just to connect with other gamers out there, but to compete virtually. To measure, learn and gain skills & insight that can be readily transferred
  • A digital helping hand to let my Aunt know when it’s time to water her geraniums – or, when she may be watering them too much!

It’s just that we haven’t necessarily called it Digital Transformation, have we?  I’d imagine all of us would say we haven’t really thought of ourselves as transforming all of this time, we’ve just been living life. Just taking advantage of all of the cool new offers from our favorite retailers.  We probably don’t spend a lot of time thinking about all of the data analysis going on in the background.

Often the subtleties of transformation are hard to notice as they’re happening – that’s usually a key indicator of transformation and not merely change, by the way.  Transformation is more permanent and enduring.  Change – well, not so much.

It can be hard to define Digital Transformation.  But is it really one of those you’ll know when you see it kinds of things? Looking back on the rapid growth and pervasiveness of the iPhone and the App Store, for example – did everyone notice when we (as consumers) kind of stopped caring about what kind of chip we had in our devices (Pentium, anyone?) or how many megs we had in our hard drives or how much more RAM my new PC had than yours?

Nope – at some point, it became all about the applications. Could my device handle Yelp, could I get all my email remotely?  And – could I swipe my smartphone a few times and have a car come pick me up and take me wherever I wanted?

That last one is a bit more recent, isn’t it?  But assuredly transformative.

Another assuredly transformative aspect of Digital Transformation has been with our students at Pfeiffer University. We’ve noticed our students come to us much more prepared for the shifts in technology advancements than ever before.  In fact, I can say with confidence there’s a young person sitting in a Freshman classroom right now that will be able to qualify for an entry level data scientist role upon graduation.

Think about that.

Just a few years ago, a data scientist was the type of person we’d expect to find deep within a research laboratory or PhD program.  Today, new technology makes it so much easier to mine data ourselves, to perform forensic analyses – even to tinker with advanced algorithms. Our students will be graduating ready to jump in and help others understand and contribute to the Digital Transformation Journey – able to translate data into insight and ready to guide our larger community around the implications of our advances and our changing world.

As educators and technology leaders, we must continue to participate and provide a primer, of sorts, to those burgeoning data scientists out there. To ensure synthesis occurs in the minds of learners, not just data management. We must make sure connections are made with all the data and information flowing out there, not just be satisfied with mere knowledge and technical administration of systems.

Here is a great way to explain, visually, what we must do to help convey the journey from data to insight:

This is a timeline illustrated with multiple arrows, showing the process of moving from data to insight. The arrows are labeled in the following order: data; information; knowledge; insight.

Defining Digital Transformation doesn’t have to be difficult or confounding – we just have to look around and participate.

  • It’s how we consume our technology, not just how we create it
  • It’s that we amplify our data nowadays, not just administer it
  • It’s in our collisions – our unexpected “aha” moments of discovery
  • It’s in what we share, not just in what we know

It’s in our everyday – just participating and living life!

Click this image to register for webcasts of must-see sessions from the Blackboard Analytics Symposium.