Digital transformations are quite the thing. Many organisations seem to have a self-styled Chief Digital Officer trumpeting the reinvigoration of their products and services with a capital D.  While it would be churlish to deny the benefits of making such products and services simpler to access, easier to use and more interesting to consume, I do have a couple of issues with the concept of digital transformation.

Firstly it’s not a project or a plan. It’s underpinned by a step change in people and culture. Yet so much of it is envisaged from the standpoint of technology driven UX, and that’s not even half the story. The second is it’s making some management consultancies a whole load of revenue for what is essentially the emperor standing naked wondering where his clothes may have gone. I’ll be back to this at a later date.

Today though, I want to consider the digital suffix to be a rather more accurate word. And that is ‘veneer‘. Too many transformations are merely enhancing the customer facing components of the service and changing almost nothing else. Lipstick on a pig is what my American colleagues would call it. Push your hand through the new and shiny, and you’re left with people lacking the right skills, broken processes and really poor data management all wrapped in confusion and fatigue.

Of course not every digital transformation looks like this; but far too many in my experience lack the end to end perspective including – what I’ve heard senior people call- ‘the boring bits’. Well I’m rooting for the boring bits here – especially all that awesome stuff hidden in dowdy data silos. The power and value of true transformations is unlocked, at least in part, by solid data management and senior management evangelism.

Data is the beating heart of digital. Get this right and you have built the foundation of sustainable digital services. This is not a revelation that will have you gasping ‘how could we not have thought of this?‘- of course it isn’t, most sensible people ‘get data‘ but crucially they don’t know how to get the best out of it. Implementing proper data management is a slog; it’s hard to derive early value when implementing a process based framework, it’s immensely difficult to break open data silos and educate staff that ‘their‘ data is just a piece of ‘everyones‘ data’, it’s a battle to engage senior management to drive the top down changes needed to make it happen.

It is however essential. So much of our digital experience is a mash-up of different products and services. All of these are driven by data which must be governed using the same quality criteria, the same meta and reference information, some form of mastering and – most importantly – with defined owners who advocate fair use for all.  That’s a big ask when many of our digital interactions are with huge acquisition bloated organisations who silo your data in discreet and walled technology gardens.  When you build your consumer products on barely understood interfaces between disparate data sources, it should be no surprise to find transformation is nothing more than turning rocks over and then carefully placing them back exactly where they were.

One day – and I hope it’s not too far distant – I’ll see a digital transformation initiative with an enterprise data model front and centre in the plan. I appreciate this Utopian vision representing the pinnacle of best practice data management may not be happening anytime soon, but it absolutely has too if we’re to get away from creating flash user experiences built on rickety assumptions, coupled interfaces and crossed fingers.

The higher education sector understands this. It needs to because the current data landscape is unsustainable. HEDIIP has done great work putting the blueprint together for how the sector can transparently share and use data. It’s a fantastic start, but that’s all it is because now our job is to convince budget holders and other senior staff that best practice data management, improvements in data capability and an education to all staff and customers on the power and value of data is more important than the other 20 most important things on their desks every day.

Data needs to be the D in Digital. Without it many transformations will end with other words starting with D. Disappointment, Disillusion and Disaster are three that come to mind.