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Want to Do Your Workers a Favor? Help Them Develop This Type of Skill

More companies are improving digitally, but most employees don’t feel supported.

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BY Wanda Thibodeaux - 09 Jul 2018

Want to Do Your Workers a Favor? Help Them Develop This Type of Skill

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Today, digital is the default--technologies like the cloud, mobile, electronic files and artificial intelligence are everywhere. So you probably would assume that companies are doing all they can to make sure their workers have the digital skills necessary to compete.

Nice guess, but that's just not the case.

Lots of talk, but apparently, a puny amount of action

A new report by MIT Sloan Management Review and Deloitte Digital looked at the state of digital maturity in organizations around the world, classifying businesses as early, developing or mature. The report, which surveyed more than 4,300 executives, managers and analysts globally, found that the overwhelming majority of respondents believe they have to update their skills at least every year to be effective in the digital environment. In fact, 44 percent went even further and said they need to update their skills "continually" to be effective. But only 1 out of 3 respondents (34 percent) said they're satisfied with how their businesses are helping them prepare for the digital world.

And that could have dire consequences, according to Gerald Kane, Professor of Information Systems, Boston College's Carroll School of Management.

"Business history is replete with examples of companies that have disappeared or are a shadow of their former selves because they didn't keep up with technological trends," Kane says. "Digital is not a once-and-done effort. Ongoing and continual transformation will be the new normal going forward as technology continues to change, providing new opportunities to work differently. Companies that do not develop adaptable processes and a supportive environment to learn and grow may not be able to operate effectively in this environment."

Doug Palmer, Principal, Deloitte Consulting LLP and Deloitte Digital Strategy Leader, asserts that the dissatisfaction is probably less about the attention on any one digital area and more about workers simply having the opportunity to keep their skills up.

"[Refreshing skills can be done] through formal training," Palmer says, "but more [workers] prefer work opportunities to develop these skills on the job."

In other words, employees don't want to be shoved into seminars, conferences or meetings to learn. They want to learn hands-on, to adapt by physically doing in ways that integrate naturally into their daily work routines and job descriptions. They want experience just as much as they want information, likely because experiences give the information deeper relevancy that aids retention and future application. 

Imagine that.

So why the deficiency in support?

Kane says that companies can be their own worst enemies in that they fall into "competency traps". This means they cling to what has made them successful in the past and fail to recognize when those factors start to hold them back. But the data from the new report suggests that whether a company sinks or swims also connects strongly to the company leadership.

"Interestingly," Kane points out, "it wasn't whether companies currently have effective digital leaders that differentiated the most digitally mature companies, but it was whether they were developing them." 

The report also found that digitally maturing companies (54 percent) are tending to push decision making down--just 22 percent of early stage companies are doing this. But there's still a disconnect between executives and employees about how much this really is happening. While 59 percent of CEOs believe they're pushing decision making down, just 33 percent of vice-president and director level respondents say it's happening. 

"Some of this may be executives' unwillingness to give up control," Kane says. "But our data also suggests employees may also be unwilling to step up and take responsibility. Until this disparity gets resolved, companies are likely to struggle to adapt quickly enough."

The silver lining 

While it's disheartening that so many workers don't feel like their companies have their backs when it comes to digital, it's not all burned toast. Another significant finding from the study was that the number of companies in the early stage dropped a full 9 percentage points from last year. At the same time, the number of companies in the developing and maturing stages increased 3 and 5 percentage points, respectively. That indicates that, while there's certainly room for improvement with developing digital leaders, overall, more companies are starting to change and adapt to the digital environment.

And you can be proactive when it comes to stimulating this kind of change, according to Palmer. One option is to look beyond your own walls.

"We've seen a number of interesting examples of companies partnering and collaborating in new ways, whether it be in strategic business partnerships or with customers. The key is likely to recognize that you are part of a greater ecosystem or figure out how you fit into one. Then the ecosystem is working together to figure out new ways of working, rather than one company with limited resources trying to do it all themselves." 

Looking more internally, it's all about trial and error and the willingness to get out of your own rut.

"First, start with small, short experiments--6-8 week sprints in a team to try out a new technology, process or way of working. If that experiment is unsuccessful, be sure you learn from it, share those lessons with your employees and try again based on what you've learned. If it's successful, also be sure you learn from it. Then use those successes to drive change across the organization. Many companies experiment, but far fewer use the results to drive real change. That's key."

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