The Need for Digital Know-How Starts at the Top


Do you remember the last time you received an email from a senior leader touting some new transformative technology you’d soon be expected to use? It was going to revolutionize the way you work, change your company’s culture, and inject digital acumen into the organization.

How did that turn out? Most employees probably followed along for a while, then looked around and saw that the heads of their divisions and other executives were going about things the same way they always had. So much for that new culture. In fact, at least 70 percent of transformation efforts will fail to achieve the desired results in 2018, according to IDC, and a mere 3 percent of CEOs worldwide said that they have successfully completed enterprise-wide digital transformations in a survey by SAP and Oxford Economics.

Such skills are necessary for employees across an organization, but how many CEOs have also examined the abilities of their own executive teams? When they do, they might not like what they see: PwC’s 21st CEO survey found that 70 percent of CEOs say they’re worried about the digital skills of their senior leadership team. And the 30 percent who aren’t worried shouldn’t assume that those skills are where they need to be.

Worse, many CEOs aren’t doing anything meaningful to improve their own skills, perhaps because they haven’t fully grasped what it means to be a digital company. For instance, 55 percent of CEOs say they’re customizing the software they use as a way to hone their digital skills. That’s admirable, but not nearly enough to lead a company into the digital future. And just 23 percent say they are interacting regularly with artificial intelligence-powered tools. Perhaps they never ask questions of Siri, don’t own an Amazon Echo, or never interact with chatbots. Or could it be they don’t fully understand what AI is and what it could mean for their business?

It’s hard to move a ship if the captain and the main crew aren’t steering in the direction they’ve asked everyone else to go. For most traditional organizations, change has to start at the top. Otherwise, you will find that your senior leaders don’t have the skills needed to be exemplars of the new way of working required in a digital company. And if that’s the case, it’s likely any transformation is destined to fail or bring poor results.

The time to act is now; the need for key skills to lead in the digital future will only be more intense in the years to come. For most leaders in traditional companies, expertise in a particular area and an ability to guide decisions through old-school “the boss decides” management tactics are what got them to the top. But that won’t work in an agile, digitally focused approach.

Reconciling the traditional with what it takes to manage a truly digital organization is the first step. To turn the tide, senior leaders have to admit to the company as a whole what they, too, have a lot to learn. Once that’s out in the open, CEOs and senior executives need to upskill themselves, and be public with their workforce about that effort. Yes, upskilling is a buzzword — but not without reason. The idea dominates today’s employment conversations, became a centerpiece of the World Economic Forum in January 2018, and is a staple in tomorrow’s jobs narrative.

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