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Digital Transformation: Digital Darwinism or survival of the nimblest?

This is my second blog post covering the topic of Digital Transformation. You can read the first one here.

As Digital Transformation continues its buzzword journey through the Gartner hype cycle – hopefully toward the plateau of productivity stage – a fairly large number of other smaller – but equally puzzling – companion new jargon will be created. Digital Darwinism is one of them. It’s sexy, it’s catchy, and it sounds very smart. Google it, and you will find plenty of papers, articles, blog posts, and even books about it. Many of them use the definition first articulated by Brian Solis:

Digital Darwinism is the phenomenon when technology and society evolve faster than an organization can adapt.

A recent McKinsey article goes deeper and mentions a fashionable, often misused word to explain it: the ethereal company DNA.

The right DNA for an evolving environment: Darwin understood that it’s not necessarily the strongest or most intelligent species that survive, but rather those best responsive to change.

However, there is a fundamental disconnect in the correlation between modern Darwinism and what we are observing in several industries today. Mainstream evolutionary theory sustains that evolution occurs solely through natural selection, without any mechanism involving the inheritance of acquired characteristics resulting from use or disuse. In other words, surviving as a species is determined by random mutation and environment changes, and there is nothing that individual beings can do to change that fate. Individuals have control over their own lives, but not the long term viability of their species – that’s determined by their DNA.

There is no such a thing as a company DNA, not in the sense that it is pre-coded and cannot be changed. The underlying assumption here is that of Fatalism:

Fatalism is a philosophical doctrine stressing the subjugation of all events or actions to fate. Fatalism generally refers to any of the following ideas: The view that we are powerless to do anything other than what we actually do.

I would argue that every company that succumbed to changes in the competitive environment had the choice of changing their ways and surviving. It was not in their DNA to become extinct. It was in their brains. Apple was a computer company that faced near death, and now it’s experiencing unprecedented success with 70% of its revenue coming from a product that was not even in their portfolio 10 years ago. Its present success is not a guarantee of a stable future, however. Any company can adapt quickly, but they need to actively and continuously work on making it happen. It’s also true that NOT every company WILL adapt quickly to the digital emerging technologies we are seeing today, so this is a case where the problem can in fact be considered an opportunity.

In that sense, we are much closer to Digital Lamarckism than Digital Darwinism.

Lamarckism is the idea that an organism can pass on characteristics that it acquired during its lifetime to its offspring. (…) 

Examples of what is traditionally called “Lamarckism” would include:

  • Giraffes stretching their necks to reach leaves high in trees, strengthen and gradually lengthen their necks. These giraffes have offspring with slightly longer necks.

  • A blacksmith, through his work, strengthens the muscles in his arms. His sons will have similar muscular development when they mature. (source: Wikipedia)

It’s all about the survival of the nimblest, as opposed to the survival of the ones born fit. The fundamental point here is that there is no reason to fear this Digital Transformation revolution. You should embrace it, and strengthen your muscles to enable you to not only endure the storm, but grow with it. It’s not a question of being fit, it’s a question of becoming fit as quickly as possible and remaining that way forever. It’s the difference between ser and estar (in Spanish or Portuguese).

I actually admire Brian’s writing a lot – he’s a brilliant thinker – so the intent of this blog post is not to make less of his definition or analytical approach. Most people have never heard about Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, and even Charles Darwin himself thought it was possible that acquired characteristics could be inherited, so Digital Darwinism is probably the term that will stick. That’s OK, as long as we understand that organizations are not doomed to success or failure based on some mysterious inherited DNA, but rather have the power to control their own destiny.

Aaron Kim

Aaron Kim is the Head of Digital Social Collaboration at the Royal Bank of Canada, and led the efforts to bring social business and social collaboration to an organization of 79,000 employees. He’s also been a public speaker at several events across the globe, from the Web 2.0 Expo to JiveWorld, from Singapore to Barcelona. He has a passion for innovation and for making work smarter, more meaningful and rewarding to all. Born and raised in Brazil, to a Korean father and Japanese mother, he also volunteers in several diversity initiatives, inside and outside RBC. In the past, he worked as a consultant both at IBM Canada and Unisys Brazil, having played the roles of solutions architect, Basel II analyst, performance engineer, Java programmer, Unix administrator and environmental biologist. He holds an MBA from the University of Toronto, and a bachelor’s degree in Biology from the Universidade de São Paulo. He lives in Toronto, Canada, is married to Tania and have a son, Lucas.

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