Why Digital Transformation Must Begin With You

Apr 18, 2016
8 Min Read
Why Digital Transformation Must Begin With You

Why Digital Transformation Must Begin With You

When it comes to digital transformation, companies are spending millions to ready their workforces for the future. Presentations and training sessions to employees stress how critical this transformation is if an organization wants to serve the customers and compete in a fast-paced marketplace.

Yet in reality, many employees and those in the C-suite are simply nodding their heads while secretly thinking: “This really has nothing to do with me. IT will figure it all out.”

That mindset is becoming more of a concern, especially since CEOs often are thinking the same thing.

The problem is that while the tech staff can help research and advise on a digital transformation, digital transformation will not be successful unless every single employee and every single leader understands it, embraces it and contributes to it. Further, business success depends on qualified leaders not ceding this responsibility to other workers who better grasp technology.

That’s the underlying theme in a new ebook, “Becoming Digital: Strategies for Business and Personal Transformation,” by Knowledge@Wharton, the online research journal of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. The research was sponsored by Mphasis, an IT services company.

How big is the technology skills disconnect? Consider a KPMG survey that finds only 5% of CEOs and 3% of CIOs are leading the digital transformation at their companies. Nearly two-thirds of those survey respondents say they lack the necessary skills to put critical changes into play.

That lack of knowledge is what leads many C-suite players into believing they can simply work around the technology, or just delegate digital transformation to others. Such a strategy is doomed to failure, the ebook reports, because this is a major upheaval in the business world that requires everyone to get on board.

For digital transformation to truly work, it must begin with a commitment from the individual to change his or her mindset. No longer is digital transformation something for the IT department to handle, and that means that everyone must be willing to ask the “dumb” questions so they understand how they can embrace and leverage new technologies. If they don’t, companies will be at the mercy of digital disruptions and fall behind as start-ups and more established digital players take over.

Experts in the report say that as leaders begin learning about digital transformation on an individual level, they should be encouraged to not just go to their own tech team for advice, but also look for “accidental teachers” such as board members, fellow executives, academics, venture  capitalists, tech startup entrepreneurs, and even lower-level staff “in a bout of reverse mentoring.”

This “reverse mentoring” may be a difficult thing for some top leaders to absorb, but their willingness to learn from younger or less-experienced employees sends a strong signal: no employee can ever afford to stop learning in a digital world and being openly curious is a trait that will benefit the company.

Erika Andersen, founding partner of Proteus, a leadership coaching, consulting, and training firm, notes in the report that leaders have to be willing to show others that they, too, are learning about digital. For example, she says the CEO of a media company would often stop the participants in a digital meeting to say, ‘I’m not familiar with this. Can you just back up and slow down, and talk to me assuming I don’t know what you’re talking about?’ ”

Experts say that a willingness to make learning about digital a priority is the first step to understanding a digital transformation. The ebook also advises:

  • Being honest. Don’t exaggerate your level of comfort or knowledge about digital. If you don’t know much, be willing to admit it so that you can truly build a foundation of learning.
  • Embracing your curiosity and perseverance. As children, we were often curious about many things, and willing to try something even if we weren’t great in the beginning. (Remember how many times you fell off that bicycle while learning to ride?) But there was always a great sense of satisfaction – and even joy – when you mastered something new. The willingness to open yourself up to new things may just jumpstart new ideas or even revive your energy and passion for your work.
  • Remembering that you are competent. Leaders would not be in such a position if they were not skilled and capable. While digital may seem intimidating at first, they need to remember that they have shown an ability to learn and grow and they can become just as good at digital.
  • Paying attention. “The world is changing so fast that, if we’re not actively listening through social media, if we are not digesting, if we are not analyzing what’s out there, we are going to be at a disadvantage,” says Michael Useem, Wharton management professor and director of the Wharton Center for Leadership and Change Management.

Finally, don’t be shy about reaching out to those who can explain digital in a way you understand. If the tech department uses too much jargon, then look for a junior employee who can teach you in a way that makes it easier to grasp.  While younger workers have grown up with digital, you eventually will get it, experts say.

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