When technology works, it works fabulously well.

At its best, technology can lead to true, measurable “transformation” of our processes and how we work. For example, at a recent presentation, I heard a project manager explain a system he implemented that changed the processing time for municipal permits from 6 hours to 1 second. Now, that is digital transformation.

But technology is only effective when it’s adopted. Consider this: Two decades after Edison switched on the light bulb, only 3% of U.S. businesses used electricity, according to the HBR article “From Prediction to Transformation.”  (This is a sobering fact when it comes to accepting how hard it can be for us to embrace change, even ground-breaking human advancements.)

You can probably look around and see all kinds of places where technology could be serving you better RIGHT NOW!

That’s why thinking in terms of “Digital Adoption” over “Digital Transformation” can be less daunting and a lot faster and more effective.

Why the Idea of “Digital Transformation” Can Be Misguided

In recent decades, many organizations have undergone large transformation initiatives related to technology. Today’s leaders are expected to deliver ongoing, continuous transformation.

Yet one of the biggest reasons researchers cite for digital transformation failures is setting expectations too high. Projects lay out grand visions and hopeful ideas but this energy and enthusiasm wanes and negative emotions take over as the transformation drags on. (I have been on these projects before.)

We may blame circumstances or our ability to change, but I believe the reason is much simpler. Unreasonable, overly optimistic expectations undermine digital transformation projects from the get-go because the concept of ‘transformation’ is too lofty.

To transform is to go through a process that will make us completely different on the other side. It’s like you are a caterpillar forming into a larva in a cocoon that – after digital transformation – turns into a beautiful butterfly. Maybe this image is just too far-fetched.

In fact, many organizations implement tools like sales systems, analytics, project management tools, and the like, which provide improvements. But it’s a stretch to call these changes “transformation.” (Most of the time, we aren’t butterflies afterward, just nicer caterpillars, I guess.)

The hype around digital transformation isn’t something new either. When ERP systems like SAP and JD Edwards were being implemented almost 20 years ago, I remember people thinking that you would be able to run your financial statements with the push of a button. (For my non-accountant friends in the house, that’s not exactly how it works.)

History repeats itself, as they say. We like to buy the big dream. But that grand vision comes at a cost (of unreasonable or unattainable expectations).

So, let’s explore “Digital Adoption” as a better way (much of the time) to conceptualize our move to the digital world and a better way of working.

What a “Digital Adoption” Approach Might Look Like

Digital Adoption is the practice of evaluating and improving how you use and acquire digital technology to better meet the demands of your organization. It can be as basic as better training on your existing tools. While digital transformation is fat, digital adoption is lean.

The objectives of a Digital Adoption program are to:

  • Understand the technology you have and how to use it better.
  • Adopt continuous improvement regarding using the tools and technology that you have.
  • Adopt a reasonable feedback loop with your stakeholders to understand your technology needs.
  • Identify new solutions to add to your technology stack and technology roadmap.
  • Form committees or working teams to get IT and the business to work together to identify issues and opportunities and to solve problems collaboratively.

That’s it! You have a digital adoption program.

In my experience, organizations big or small which make even modest efforts to implement digital adoption programs (formally or informally) are successful to one degree or another. And there are no false pretenses either.

So, before you set out on your next digital initiatives, make sure you are using the right term first. If transformation doesn’t describe your goals and potential outcomes (i.e., you’re not aiming for butterflies), try out ‘Digital Adoption’. Think lean, set realistic expectations, appeal to your stakeholders, and see your success rate soar.