I ended my previous column in this series with the thought that COVID-19 has revealed how far digital technology has come in the past decade as well as how far it has yet to go. Organisations are just starting the journey of digital transformation. Enterprises and their workforces face years (if not decades) of instability as they try to absorb the impact of the new technologies that are emerging and maturing right now.

Keeping up with the anticipated rate of change will be difficult for most businesses and for most people. As the great work from home experiment has shown us, the infrastructure for people to work anywhere and anytime is largely there – but the management practices, methods of learning and ways of working have not caught up.

Perhaps the most damaging idea that endures from the old, analogue world is that we should be using digital technology to make people more efficient, and that the role of managers is to make people productive. But in a world of thin margins and hyper-competition, efficiency and productivity are table stakes.

Efficiency delivers diminishing returns over time – it’s a race to the bottom. But what I defined as capability in my previous column is a means of creating a sustainable competitive advantage. It’s also a better way to equip people to continuously adjust to the shifting needs of our volatile business and technology environment.

Evolve at the speed of technology

Though there are many skills and attributes that comprise capability, it’s about giving the organisation and its people the ability to solve real life customer problems. These problems are not static – they evolve at the speed of technology. A person or organisation that can apply skills, technologies and abilities to solving problems will always be relevant.

However, most businesses do not have mechanisms to listen to what the customer’s emerging problems are, much less solve them in unique or innovative ways. They do not have people with the capabilities, either innate or learned, to identify these customer problems and deliver solutions to them.

Empowering people – especially those at the coalface –  with the abilities, tools and data they need to be agile and innovative is how we change that. And the good news is that most people can learn, practice and improve capabilities such as  leadership, critical thinking, communication, collaboration and even creativity in the same ways as they would a hard skill.

But reengineering the organisation and its culture for this change is anything but simple. Most companies will need to take a long, hard look at themselves and ask whether they are doing enough to harness diversity and embed inclusion. They need to build teams that are diverse in terms of gender, race, ethnicity, age and educational background, and ensure that they are open to differences of thinking and perspective.

Plus, they will need to rethink how they structure and manage teams. We can expect to see leading companies move away from industrialised working spaces built for scale and efficiency towards smaller, more fluid, more collaborative teams. These teams will bring together the skills and capabilities to solve customer problems.

Since these teams will be multidisciplinary in nature, functional siloes (HR, sales, marketing, IT etc.) will start to fade away. Where people are in the world and even whether they are full-time employees as opposed to contractors, freelancers, secondments from partners or service provider employees will be less important than their contribution to solving the problem.

Digital transformation is a moving target – enterprises need to build a nimble organisation and a learning culture that can keep pace with technology, social and environmental change.

People AND technology – not people OR technology

Their relationship to technology will also change. According to an Accenture study that covered 14 major economies, around half of work time can be augmented with technology and 38% can be automated. Organisations will need to look at levelling up digital skills, so that their people are comfortable ‘collaborating’ with robots and artificial intelligence (AI) and they can get the best of machines and humans.

All of this raises the question of how employers, schools and universities will drive the acquisition of the capabilities people will need to thrive in a digital world. These capabilities are not taught in classrooms – they are built through practice and experience.

How we use technology to deliver learning will be key. Experiential learning technologies – including immersive tools like virtual reality and Massive Open Online Courses – and next-generation collaboration tools will play an important role. AI can be used to give feedback to people, personalise and recommend courses, and provide learning support.

Right now, every business needs skill sets to get the job done. But simply saying we are going to teach people new skills does not serve them, the business or the customer well. You can’t throw technology alone at a cultural and human challenge. If we really want to put a business onto a new trajectory, it will require a distinctly different culture. That culture is based on collaboration and agility, among other factors.

It will be access to human mentorship and the quality of leadership that will determine whether the organisation truly absorbs a culture of customer-centricity and lifelong learning. Companies that grasp the nettle will be able to position themselves as the leaders of the future – those that are not looking at how to evolve their culture and their workforce risk future irrelevance.

Reference: https://www.accenture.com/_acnmedia/thought-leadership-assets/pdf/accenture-education-and-technology-skills-research.pdf

This first appeared in ChannelWise: https://channelwise.co.za/leadership-and-culture-will-determine-readiness-for-the-digital-age/

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