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Digital transformation requires consulting your people assets

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(Image credit: Shutterstock / Blackboard)

There is at least one clear takeaway from the Covid-19 pandemic: Digital transformation is no longer optional for businesses. The companies that adapted to the pandemic and maintained business continuity throughout did so with the help of countless cloud-based, enterprise-class, and mobile-first technologies. Conversely, the companies that struggled to adapt to the unexpected imperatives of 2020 were likely contending with inadequate or nonexistent technologies.

The era of analog is quickly fading into the rearview mirror. Over a seven-month period during the pandemic, McKinsey estimates that companies accelerated their digital maturity by seven years. They embraced new technologies and new tech-driven procedures at unprecedented speed and scale. Most saw this sprint into digital transformation strategy as a necessary means of business survival through the pandemic — and they were right.

As companies continue to make the mad dash, however, they must not lose focus on their people. Many companies have invested far more in technology than they have in training. They’re growing the tech stack as quickly as possible, but they’re not giving employees the training and education they need to manage those new technologies effectively. Likewise, they’re not training end users on how to use these tech tools to their fullest potential.

Of course, buying new tools is always easier (and more exciting) than learning how to master them. But if companies are transforming in ways that employees can’t keep up with and implementing technologies that no one knows how to use, it’s counterproductive. Digital transformation into something better than before requires two things: technology and employee training.

The digital transformation tech skills gap in action 

Here’s an example I observed of an organization that wasn’t prepared for its own digital transformation strategy: It was a large health system with robust back-end enterprise resource planning and electronic health record systems serving as centerpieces of the tech stack. Basically, all things tech-related fell under the purview of the IT team.

Then the Covid-19 pandemic hit, and the health system wanted to stand up its patient portal (a customer-facing portal through which patients and the public at large could interact with a range of digital assets). It was an ambitious undertaking and exactly the kind of digital-first thinking needed. The only problem was that the marketing department (not IT) was in charge of designing and building the portal.

The marketers had plenty of clever and creative ideas for the portal, both in terms of look and functionality. What they lacked, however, was anywhere near the tech skills it would take to make their design a reality. Their proximity to the public gave them great insight into what the portal should do. But the significant tech skills gap on the marketing team made those insights irrelevant.

In my experience, this isn’t uncommon. And as companies leap into a companywide digital transformation strategy, many teams without technical experience or expertise will attempt projects that require it. It’s a disaster waiting to happen and an alarming obstacle to success. But there’s also a simple solution.

The case for employee training 

The importance of employee training predates the digital era. Companies have always understood the necessity of training employees on the tools they will use. This concept isn’t foreign, but in the midst of digital transformation, it takes on a new facet.

The reason companies have lagged in employee training is that many still think of IT as the primary department involved with technology. Conventional wisdom says that employees outside IT needed computer literacy and cybersecurity training, but they don’t need to learn code or study web design. Now that every department will both run on technology and, to some degree, produce digital assets, it’s time for people outside IT to receive meaningful technical training as well.

That training does take time and come at some cost. However, the investment is justified when the departments closest to customers — such as marketing, sales, and customer service — can reflect customers' wants and needs through the company's digital footprint. When this happens, digital transformation enhances a company’s appeal instead of doing the opposite. IT can’t create irresistible digital experiences; the people who know customers best can.

Strategies for expanding employee training 

To get the most out of your technology investments and fuel a successful digital transformation strategy, consider these steps for employee training: 

 1. Start in the IT department. 

You want to expand tech skills beyond IT, but it is important to first confirm that IT has the infrastructure in place to enable other departments to pursue tech-related projects. IT needs to have the necessary security, automation, compliance, service management, and other basics set up before anything else can happen. Don’t neglect training, but also don’t rush into it until the people, processes, and technology are ready. As the saying goes, don’t put the cart before the horse. 

2. Find knowledge gaps and secure buy-in. 

After you have a solid foundation in place, it's time to start conversations and build awareness in your organization around the associated tools and workflows. Start by talking to the people closest to the customers to understand what digital products you need, then connect with people on the business and technology side to understand where the training gaps lie and come up with a plan to close them through training.

Including employees in digital transformation strategy conversations early on and showing that their input and feedback is valuable will help you gain initial buy-in. Employees will be a lot more receptive to training if they understand the needs and benefits from the get-go.

3. Embrace supporting methodologies. 

Part of enabling your teams to design and deploy better digital experiences is connecting different units in your organization. Marketing, IT, business development, and more need to be able to share information efficiently to make sure client-facing employees, who have now been tasked with taking part in the development of digital experiences, have the right lines of communication to keep their projects on track.

Methodologies like agile, project management, and change management are all well-suited to overlay across business units to ensure that non-technical personnel have access to technical and business expertise while they're developing new customer experiences. To get the most out of these methodologies, implement them in parallel with any new piece of technology you're bringing on. This helps to ensure that new end users, those non-technical folks, feel supported and connected from day one — instead of trying to implement them retroactively to straighten out development bottlenecks and roadblocks.

4. Build a training sandbox. 

When it comes to arming your team for successful digital transformation, don't take a sink or swim approach. Instead, give them time and space to practice the new skills they're learning. Build a space where trainees can experiment with apps, tools, and techniques. A sandbox gives them hands-on experience in a consequence-free environment. Trainees can develop practical skills and try out concepts learnt in training. Practice makes perfect, and technical skills are much easier to absorb when people can develop them through trial, error, and exploration rather than instruction alone.

Going through digital transformation without employee training is like buying a car without learning how to drive. It only makes sense to couple a major investment in new technology with a major commitment to closing tech skills gaps. I don’t recommend pumping the brakes on digital transformation — not when it’s so important to reach the finish line — but I do advise hitting the gas when it comes to employee training. Ideally, the two facets of digital transformation, technology and training, race forward at the same speed.

Tom Niehaus, Executive Vice President of Operations, North America, CTG

Tom Niehaus is the Executive Vice President of Operations, North America, at CTG.