Skillsoft Blog

Digital Transformation: The Medium is not the Message

April 21, 2021 | by Gerald (Jerry) C. Kane, Ph.D.

"It's a twister!" Who can forget the iconic tornado scene in The Wizard of Oz? While Dorothy's family and friends lock themselves in a storm cellar, Dorothy herself is swept far from home, landing in the strange and wonderful land of Oz. We wouldn't have her story if it hadn't been for that powerful storm. And yet, while that tornado may have been her ride out, what actually got her to Oz was Dorothy herself, and her curiosity about what lies over the rainbow.

In other words, it doesn't matter how she got there. The important thing is she got there.

When it comes to digital transformation and technology, the same idea applies, even though it might seem counterintuitive. I touched on this analogy in my book, The Technology Fallacy: How People Are the Real Key to Digital Transformation. During a worldwide pandemic, digital transformation has leapt ahead, and businesses have been forced to keep pace. Most companies were about 10-15 years behind where they needed to be digitally when the pandemic struck, and they’ve rapidly closed that gap in the year since. Certainly, embracing new technology is key to success in the digital age. But it's important to view technology as just a means to an end, albeit a necessary one.

The organizations that thrive are those that recognize that technology serves people — not the other way around. In other words, even the most sophisticated technology won't do much good if it doesn't get you where you want to go. And if you haven't inspired your people to embrace it — and taught them the skills to use it — that's a recipe for stagnation, if not disaster.

Digital Maturity Requires a Growth Mindset

Successful organizations are emerging from the pandemic more digitally savvy, more risk-tolerant, more agile, and more experimental than ever before. These are all aspects of something I call “digital maturity.” Digital maturity isn’t primarily about adopting new technology but developing people — and the skills, talent, culture, leadership, and strategy to compete in a digital world. It's also about what Stanford Psychologist Carol Dweck calls a "growth mindset.” Just like people, organizations tend to operate from either a fixed mindset or a growth mindset. And that starts at the top.

While researching for my book, I asked executives about barriers to digital transformation, and where they thought their organizations would be in 10-15 years. Those who said their organizations would be in a stronger position believed they would develop the digital capabilities to compete. That's a growth mindset. The ones who felt theirs would be weaker displayed a fixed mindset; clinging to traditional business models — "we're a legacy company" — or expressing fears around technology.

One organization that impressed me most was Walmart. When we talked with their Chief Human Relations Officer, she said that they realized their customers would want to shop in very different ways in 10 years, and they needed to adapt if the company wanted to retain those customers. And that’s just what they’re doing — at lightning speed. eCommerce sales grew 74% in the first quarter of 2020. They also invested in their employees, raising their hourly wage, providing free telehealth access, and implementing work from home policies for office associates.

Another success story belongs to Aetna. They have always employed a traditional education reimbursement policy, but as the pandemic progressed, they scaled up and focused on employee development with a strategic talent plan. Aetna projected ahead 10 years and reimbursed employees at three times the normal rate for learning skills the organization anticipated needing. And they realized ROI over 100% — retaining loyal top talent in the bargain.

Which brings me back to the most important driver of digital transformation: your people.

Empower your People with New Skillsets

When you empower your people with the skills they need to remain viable, you empower your organization to thrive. 90% of employees I surveyed for my book felt they had to update their skill set at least yearly to keep up with the demands of their roles, but fewer than half of them said their organizations offered the necessary training. I also found that employees were a startling 15 times more likely to leave their organization within a year if they weren’t given the opportunity to learn.

The concept of the "growth mindset" is comparable to one of "lifelong learning." According to Wikipedia (my apologies to Webster), Lifelong Learning is the "ongoing, voluntary, and self-motivated pursuit of knowledge for either personal or professional reasons. Therefore, it not only enhances social inclusion, active citizenship, and personal development, but also self-sustainability, as well as competitiveness and employability."

I'm on board with that definition. In fact, it’s why I was so pleased to work with Skillsoft recently, contributing guidance to their new Digital Leadership Self-Assessment, developed using research from MIT Sloan Management Review and Deloitte. In as little as 15 minutes, the Self-Assessment can help you discover your current level of digital maturity — overall and per competency — and determine an aggregated digital leadership maturity score for your organization. You'll receive personalized learning recommendations to further your knowledge and improve return on investment in Skillsoft's Leadership Development Program.

Incidentally, there's more to that Oz story. A tornado may have tossed Dorothy into a new world, but in the end, clicking her heels brought her home, transformed. In the same way, the right technology can offer us the means to deliver our message to our own new world. But it's our people who will continue to shape it.

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