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Understanding digital transformation

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Digital transformation is how some organizations describe their efforts to bring new technologies, processes, and culture together with shared purpose. This purpose may be to improve customer experience, innovate faster, or simply survive better as digital disruption reshapes their industry. Digital transformation requires commitment from multiple stakeholders within an organization, from leadership to working teams. It does not always involve outside consultants, but many organizations seek digital transformation consulting to guide their transformation initiatives

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Discover the 6 stages of digital transformation

Whatever the purpose, the most important detail of digital transformation is that it is more than the adoption or modernization of technology. It is often discussed in organizations that want to fundamentally improve technology’s role in many areas of their business—not just in IT. It is ideally seen as a continuous change to the status quo, rather than a project with an endpoint.

There’s no standard industry definition of digital transformation because the challenges that lead organizations to it can be very different, though certain trends have emerged. For organizations already heavily invested in technology, for instance, digital transformation is often about bringing IT into planning discussions sooner so they can support innovation. For organizations not as invested in technology, digital transformation is more often about changing to a digital business model that positions IT as a partner versus simply a cost center.

Other business jargon like "change management" have similar definitions, but it’s no accident that "transformation" has come to define this imperative in the digital age.

Digital disruption is now a constant state for most industries, not just one event. "Transformation" implies more than an investment in the latest technology—it underscores the need to reimagine processes and culture for continuous technology change.

Listen to Code Comments season 3 for a holistic approach to digital transformation 

The term digital transformation is sometimes used to mean new architectures, like microservices, or new processes, like DevOps, or new technologies, like containers and application programming interfaces (APIs). It can often sound like just another way of describing cloud adoption.

There is no single architectural pattern or technology platform that works flawlessly in every single environment. Any organization with legacy applications (and legacy teams), for instance, probably has well-defined and difficult to change development, testing, build, and release processes. They probably also have technical debt that can impede new technology adoption.

Stack of 'Teaching an elephant to dance' e-books

While every organization would love to work in a modern technical environment powered by microservices and DevOps, most have layers of infrastructure and hierarchy to rebuild. Their challenge is teaching their lumbering elephant to dance like a nimble ballerina.

The first step is assessing teams, current technical debt, and business strategies. "Teaching an elephant to dance" is a practical and simple guide to get you started. It is informed by experiences across industries, and offers a useful analogy that you can share with your colleagues.

Digital transformation isn’t a product or a solution you can buy for your teams. It’s a continuous process involving new technologies and ways of working in order to gain competitive advantage. This puts CIOs in a key role for transformation initiatives, regardless of their organization’s size or industry.

It’s also true that many in IT see "digital transformation" as just another buzzword, but the business mandates behind it–to rethink old operating models, experiment more, act agile in response to customers and rivals–are very real CIO challenges. New financial concerns driven by the COVID pandemic and economic downturn make it even more important for CIOs and IT leaders to know what’s behind the buzzword, and how to put it into practice.

pie chart that reads 95%

By the numbers

Harvard Business Review Analytic Services surveyed 522 executives to understand how the pandemic has affected digital transformation strategies. Nearly all respondents (95%) said that modernization has taken on more importance over the last 12 months. Sudden shifts in how business is done have prompted organizations to accelerate their digital transformation to adapt and compete.

Digital Transformation Minispot Keyart

From experience

Read the definitive digital transformation article from the CIO-focused Enterprisers Project. It answers common questions, provides clarity specifically for IT leaders, and lessons learned from CIOs and digital transformation experts. Because digital transformation is an evolving trend in enterprise IT, The Enterprisers Project provides updated insights as global events reshape businesses everywhere.

Red Hat believes most organizations struggle with digital transformation because they fail to think beyond the role of technology in their immediate survival. They view digital transformation as a way to keep pace technologically with peers who are disrupting their market with out-of-reach capabilities like artificial intelligence and machine learning (AI/ML), business process automation, or big data analytics.

That’s not enough to ensure your digital customer experience will be viable in the future. The goal isn’t just to survive the next digital disruption—it’s to grow and continuously adapt to change. This process is challenging, but achievable. It takes more than improvements to your IT infrastructure.

No outside consultant or software vendor can ever understand your organizational culture like an insider, yet a closed culture is well documented as the greatest barrier to success.

Red Hat has helped organizations of all types with their digital transformation journeys. Through this work we have observed 5 key areas of an organization that must commit to change for long-term success. It is far too common that only 1 or 2 elements are transformed, which is why so many transformations fail. These 5 areas are:

Leadership should create a shared vision and strategy for every team. They make their organization more adaptable, transparent, collaborative, and decentralized.

Product management translates the vision and strategy into actionable tactics that can be rapidly tested and iterated upon.

Development rapidly implements product models using modern practices like DevOps and agile. Their focus should be delivering the best capabilities within time constraints.

Architecture provides a stable technical foundation that balances the efficiency of standardization against the need for customization.

Operations establishes a foundation of resilience from unreliable components through the adoption of Site Reliability Engineering (SRE) concepts.

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Icon-Red_Hat-Media_and_documents-Quotemark_Open-B-Red-RGB Working with Red Hat means more than just adopting software. They helped our teams develop their skills, as well as learn more about available tools and updates, to make better decisions independently.

Fernando Núñez

National Director of Health Information Systems, Argentine Ministry of Health

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Icon-Red_Hat-Media_and_documents-Quotemark_Open-B-Red-RGB Our digital transformation was more than just a technology upgrade. We worked with Red Hat Consulting to strengthen our global collaboration approach and open source experience. We are now able to bring greater convenience and other benefits to not just our Korean customers but customers across all 20 of our markets.

Si Hyeong Bae

CIO and Head of ICT Division, Shinhan Bank

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Keep reading


What is digital transformation?

Digital transformation is the process of fundamentally changing an organization with technology and culture to improve or replace what existed before.


What is digital transformation consulting?

Digital transformation consulting is a service that can help organizations unlock new business value through technology.


Understanding organizational transformation

Organizational change toward an open, evolving corporate culture is key to your digital transformation.

More about digital transformation


An intensive, highly focused residency with Red Hat experts where you learn to use an agile methodology and open source tools to work on your enterprise’s business problems.

Engagements with our strategic advisers who take a big-picture view of your organization, analyze your challenges, and help you overcome them with comprehensive, cost-effective solutions.