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Digital transformation: what place for humans? Interview with Thibaut Le Masne.

Thibaut LE MASNE is a data specialist, digital transformation expert, author, speaker and lecturer at leading business schools. He has worked in a wide range of companies and sectors. This comprehensive view of businesses enables him to bring a complete vision to bear on the issues surrounding digitisation and data management in France.

How can we meet the challenges that have arisen with digitisation and create value in a world that is increasingly hemmed in by new entrants? For several years now, he has been providing a new, educational and tailored approach to turn this context into a competitive advantage.


1 - In 2021 you published a book on the digital transformation of businesses, in which you write in the introduction that digital transformation is "a very big term, often used but not always correctly interpreted". Could you start by explaining what digital transformation is and how it differs, if at all, from digital transformation?

In my work, one of the keys to the success of my projects is that everyone shares the same vocabulary. This simplifies exchanges and, above all, ensures that everyone understands. For example, when we talk about 'digital transformation', many people (led by the French academy) prefer the term numérique to digital. They have two problems with the term digital:

1.    It is considered an Anglicism.

2.   Digital refers to fingers, so there's no point in using it in this specific case.

I'd like to put forward three arguments in response to these two comments:

1.    Digitalis a French term. In fact, their second argument shows me that it does exist in the French language.

2.   As for the definition, it's not so restrictive because there is a plant called"la digitale".

3.   The definition of digital is "that which relates to numbers" and on this point it doesn't seem to answer the whole Digital question at all, because we're forgetting a key element : why we do it.

So, I'm not going to go into all the details in my book, but what I like about the term digital is that it often refers to the 'fingerprint' dimension. These fingerprints are what make us unique and unrepeatable. So, by preferring the term digital to numeric, I'm adding a purpose, an objective, which is why we're doing digital transformation : to provide a service to people (with a capital H).

Digital means computerizing a task, whereas digital goes further, it must be turned towards people.

To conclude, here is my proposed definition : Digitalis a data-centric ecosystem that complies with regulations and adapts to the context in which it evolves, making it possible to deliver value-added services in a very short space of time.

OK, I admit that there's an Anglicism here (which I'll go into in more detail later in my book), but this definition covers everything that digital should be.

2 - Last year, a study by the Normandy School of Management on the digital transformation of VSEs and SMEs emphasized that "although the foundations for digital transformation have been laid, companies are going to have to go beyond the stage of simply 'digitizing' tools". How do you explain this observation? Should we be worried about the low level of adoption of digital tools by businesses?

I don't want to go into detail about what we said at the beginning, but this study clearly shows that the concepts of digitization and digitalization are used without distinction. For example, the title,"What are the keys to transforming digitized businesses into digital businesses?

Beyond this point, the article makes the following observation: "for 54% of companies, the impact of digital on corporate strategy is neutral". Without wishing to expand on the whole article, there is a profound observation that I have been making for a long time and that motivated me to write my book. It's a mistake to want to go digital (in the sense I described above) just to be like everyone else or out of FOMO (the fear of missing out on something). First and foremost, you need to define your purpose, what motivates your business, that famous "value-added service" I referred to in my definition.

So, if the impact of digital is neutral, it's highly likely that this is partly due to the fact that companies are struggling to find their "why". In fact, in 99% of the companies I've come across or worked with, when we work with them on this "why" the answer is almost invariable: "to make a profit".

But it's important to understand that profit is more a result of the actions you've taken than an objective you have to achieve. We could say that "profit" is the "KPI" (key performance indicator) of your digitalization. So, to succeed, you need to find the real why.

As for the second part of your question, i.e. whether we should be concerned about this low level of appropriation of digital tools, my answer would be yes, but I would add that it's not irrevocable. My first answer would be that we need to help them better understand the digital world.It's a very confusing world, a bit like Alice's mirror - everything is similar, yet everything is different. For example, the notion of time is not the same : while everything moves much faster on many subjects, it is often long and complicated to make your mark. So, you have to know how to handle both long and short time.

3 - In your book you emphasize the link between human sand the digital. Does this linkage exist little or not at all today? Why do you think this is vital?  

In reality, I'm talking more about the fact that digital is a systemic principle involving three elements: data, people and business.

But, yes, we have these three concepts and they do exist:

The business dimension is often at the heart of our activity and our business, so we've often had it since the creation of our company. Then we must look at how this dimension is translated into digital.This is often what we observe and document. It's also what can lead us down the wrong path in digital because we think that aiming for profit is the objective.

Data is another dimension that we have, but here too we often don't necessarily master it (especially in companies that are not 'digital natives'). Admittedly, companies have been trying to cultivate data more and more over the years (especially with new regulations and the emergence of new LLM technologies, for example), but this dimension is still far from being acquired.

The human dimension, accentuated by Covid, is one where we are increasingly seeking to incorporate the notion of value and meaning into the way we operate. So yes, this dimension is now well regarded, but there is still a significant gap between the willingness of companies to take this dimension into account and the way employees perceive it.

But what I don't think gets enough attention is the systemic notion of the three elements. It's important not to look at these dimensions in silo but as part of a whole, and in my opinion that's what we don't look at enough when we want to digitize.

4 - You are the co-creator and co-host of the TrenchTech podcast, which aims to encourage "critical thinking about the societal impact of tech". How does this initiative fit in with your thinking on digital transformation? Does thinking about tech and critical thinking help us to better grasp the challenges of digital transformation, to get past what you call "Alice's mirror" in your book?

Whether we like it or not, digital is everywhere. It is often at the heart of environmental, political, and geopolitical issues that we don't necessarily imagine. Unfortunately, for commercial reasons or even more often because of a lack of understanding, these issues are very rarely addressed, not only by businesses but also by many individuals.

For a very long time now, I've been working hard to raise awareness of digital issues around me, but when I talk about the more delicate subjects (the issues at stake in our digital choices), I'm regularly confronted with a certain form of fatalism - the famous "what's the point" or "I have no choice" - or skepticism - "no, you're imagining it"...

I'm deeply convinced that together we can change things and, above all, that together we can re-enchant the digital world.

Based on these observations, Mick Levy and Cyrille Chaudoit and I created Trench Tech. The aim is simple: to awaken a critical mindset in favour of more ethical tech. To do this, we bring in a specialist in his or her field to give us their point of view. The important point is that we(the co-hosts) are not there to give our opinion, but that our guest gives us his.

This approach is in line with what I often say: we need to put our problems on the table in a pragmatic and dispassionate way, because that's the best way to make progress.

5 - What advice would you give to companies wanting to embark on a digital transformation?

First of all, it's never too late to do it right, and once you've understood how it works, it's not very complicated and everyone can do it!

And if you're looking for a source of inspiration, I'd say listen to Trench Tech and read my book.


Further readings

Thibaut Le Masne. La transformation digitale des entreprises : les leviers de la réussite. Eni, coll. DataPro, 2021.

Mathilde Aubry et al..Quelles clés pour transformer les entreprises digitalisées en entreprises numériques ? Chaire Digitalisation et Innovation dans les Organisations et les Territoires de l’EM Normandie, 2022.

What is digital transformation? McKinsey Explainers.

European Commission. 2023 Report on the state of theDigital Decade. 27 September 2023.

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