If you have been to a tech conference within the past year, you have no doubt heard the term digital transformation more times than you can count. It’s not a new concept, per se, but it seems to have taken on a life of its own more recently as marketing departments and high-level executives have used it to describe a vague approach to how their organizations are adapting and working with customers in the face of rapid technological advancements.

Cisco wants to be the “solid foundation for digital transformation”; Dell EMC wants to help customers realize their goals for digital transformation; while HPE has four key transformation areas for companies to transform to a digital enterprise. And recently at Microsoft Inspire we heard CEO Satya Nadella break digital transformation down into four pillars: empower employees; engage customers; optimize operations; and transform products.

Confused, yet?

The overuse of “digital transformation” is reminiscent of the days when cloud was the prefix for every new technology – whether it was actually cloud or not. Researchers and analysts called this cloud-washing. So is what is happening with digital transformation more of the same? IT Pro wanted to find out so we talked to CompTIA Senior Director of Technology Analysis Seth Robinson to understand what digital transformation means for IT professionals in their job now and their career in the future.

Robinson, who has been at CompTIA since 2011, has tracked digital transformation initiatives for the past three years through his research for the IT trade association based in Illinois. Earlier this year CompTIA released its report on Building Digital Organizations, which started out as a report on cloud and mobility technology before morphing into research on what the technology actually means from a business perspective.

“We had this growing sense that as much as the technologies were interesting to companies, that they had to reconfigure their workflow, they had to build new processes, and that’s what we were seeing more of,” said Robinson.

So what exactly is digital transformation? It’s a question Robinson gets a lot.

Essentially, he says, digital transformation is the “way that a business behaves and the way that they are structured in order to get the best use out of technology.”

“When you say digital transformation I think there tends to be an automatic focus on the technology, but what we see and what a lot of other firms are seeing is that it is more about the structure of a company. We’re talking now about not taking things that have always sat on the IT domain and putting them in a different model or using a different tool to do them. We’re talking about things that have traditionally sat in a business domain and digitizing them – this is where IoT, AI comes in.”

For True Digital Transformation, IT and Business Units Work Together

What Robinson has observed through his research is a much more collaborative effort between IT and business units, which takes away silos of operation, and creates an “environment where everyone is on the same page and technology is really tightly integrated into overall business objectives.”

But what is important to note is that in order for digital transformation to be successful there must have buy-in from different units and stakeholders. Robinson said that while IT pros play a part in digital transformation strategies and objectives, it is a difficult thing for IT to drive on its own.

That’s not to say that IT pros cannot or should not get involved in initial conversations around digital transformation. But it takes a business-savvy approach that many IT pros may not be used to.

“IT continues to play crucial role in company plans going forward, but that role is different than in the past,” Robinson says, moving from a highly-tactical one to one where they are required to work side-by-side with business units.

“IT is not going away, even specific job functions aren’t going away, they’re transforming and being rethought or reimagined, maybe some routine tasks are going away but creates bandwidth for more strategic activities,” he said.

For the first couple eras of enterprise technology the IT team was critical for its specialized knowledge, Robinson said.

“They were the ones making those decisions because they were the only ones that knew what specs they should be looking at or exactly how the equipment was supposed to operate,” Robinson said. “So that specialized knowledge was what created value for them in the company, and that specialized knowledge is very important but only at a tactical level. To be strategic it has to be paired with business knowledge.”

Actionable IT Goals for Digital Transformation

If digital transformation still sounds too vague, Robinson points to some specific responsibilities IT will have in the digital organization. These include: overall security; exploration of new technology; and the creation of an environment where business units can have the greatest degree of independence, for example, creating an internal company store for applications.

What’s interesting according to Robinson is that along with digital transformation and this more collaborative working environment between IT and business comes less rogue IT. Yes, really.

“What we have seen through several studies is that rogue IT - if it’s defined as business units acting completely defined from the IT function and keeping them out of the loop - that really seems to be declining,” he said. “There are still some independent actions and behavior inside the business units but that happens within a context and an environment that IT is a part of.”

So what are some easy ways for IT pros to get started in becoming more business-savvy and developing more of these soft skills to aid in digital transformation?

According to Robinson, IT pros should start to develop some understanding of business tradeoffs, and why businesses make decisions, as well as understanding some of the goals around customers, expanding in new geographies, and more.

“Then you can start to apply technology to it,” he said.

For IT pros looking for a timeline of when they need to know digital transformation inside and out, Robinson said unfortunately it’s not that simple.

“Over the past few years as an industry we’ve probably overestimated the rate of change, we’ve seen things coming very fast, but when you’re talking about transforming a business, it’s not something that’s going to happen overnight,” he said.

“I think that cloud in particular helps to skew that perspective; cloud was very unique in the way that it was usable and creating value right out of the gate, for so many other trends we see a longer adoption curve and more of a bell-shaped adoption curve, people on the cutting edge, and people on the sidelines.”

“We are on the spectrum of digital transformation and every company is going to be coming from its own starting point,” Robinson said.