Leading in the Digital Age: Digital Transformation is a People issue.

Leading in the Digital Age: Digital Transformation is a People issue.

Posted | Updated by Insights team:
Dr. Evangelo Damigos; PhD | Head of Digital Futures Research Desk
  • Competitive Differentiation
  • Sustainable Growth and Tech Trends

Publication | Update: Oct 2020

Melissa Swift, who leads Korn Ferry’s Digital Advisory for North America and Global Accounts, contests that three groups of employees tend to slow transformation momentum: Old-timers, by-the-book players, and lone wolves.

Any one of these behaviors may seem benign in isolation. But in aggregate – across large numbers of employees across large numbers of organizations – they may be the driving force behind the estimated 84 percent of digital transformations that fail

Companies must not ignore but engage these three groups, or face obstacles to digital transformation

How to do that?

Her first suggestion: Think about your population in a segmented fashion, and work to meet different segments where they are.

“Many organizations, have rolled out the digital journey in a highly uniform manner, with the same messages and techniques deployed throughout,” Melissa Swift writes,. “Re-skilling for everyone! New teams! Welcome to the new world!”  

From a change management perspective, companies should consider both digital experience and behavioral preferences to hit the right starting point and realistic end point for different groups.

The old-timers

The first, and perhaps largest, group is composed of older workers. This is not an insignificant group – for instance, Americans over 65 (and thus past the classic age for retirement) are actually the fastest-growing segment of the workforce at the moment. 

Organizations would be far better served by bringing these workers on the journey with them.

Organizations often dismiss older workers’ ability to participate in digital efforts. “They’re obstinate.” “They don’t care.” “They didn’t grow up with this technology and will never get it.”

And these workers themselves sense they are not being included, and inject biases of their own as well: “I don’t need to be a part of digital. It doesn’t concern me.” “This is just another bogus transformation. I’ve seen a million of them and I can wait it out.” Or most poignantly: “I don’t have anything to contribute here.”

This is a disturbing dialogue – and a terrible waste. Given the large and growing fraction of the workforce that older workers represent – the valuable knowledge and experience they possess across industries – and, importantly, the leadership roles that many of these folks occupy – organizations would be far better served by bringing these workers on the journey with them.

By-the-book players

It’s not just the pure technological journey that’s leaving workers by the wayside, though. The new, agile ways of working promoted as core to the digital journey leave the many employees who prefer a more structured way of operating feeling a bit lost at sea.

While the best digital leaders actually prefer unstructured environments – according to psychometric data we assembled from more than 500 best-in-class digital transformation leaders – they are challenged to manage teams that are often composed of folks with a heavy preference for structure.

For every employee cheering the slow death of the old-fashioned Cartesian organization, there’s one plunged into high anxiety by the loss of comforting guardrails.

When employees who prefer structured ways of operating are asked to operate in a new-look digital environment, they may feel that everything that allows them to perform well has been taken away: a clear chain of command, a highly codified job description, and step-by-step processes with well-defined beginnings and ends. For every employee cheering the slow death of the old-fashioned Cartesian organization, there’s one plunged into high anxiety by the loss of comforting guardrails. Some of these employees have even made a career on navigating within this structure – particularly in matrixed environments – and feel their primary skill is being devalued.

One critical point of clarification: The older workers and the workers with a high preference for structure are not necessarily the same people. The behaviors helpful to the digital journey are not owned by a particular age group or another. Picture, for instance, a 20-something who has traveled very risk-averse paths: This person may have a far worse reaction to “test and learn” iterative environments than a 50-something who has a more diverse collection of experiences in their history.

The lone wolves

Let’s add to the mix a third group that often gets left behind on the digital journey, but due to their very nature can be easy to ignore: introverts. While we might traditionally place them in the winners’ column on the digital journey – due to the prevalence of introverts in certain kinds of highly technical roles – the same ways of working that may fluster folks with a high preference for structure can also be tough for introverts.

For an introvert, being forced to discuss things in real time, constantly, may be energy-draining.

Consider, for instance, the focus on in-person collaboration that many companies believe is critical to agile progress. For an introvert, being forced to discuss things in real time, constantly, may be energy-draining. Increasingly, team-based environments take away the opportunities for solo focus that introverts may value highly. And let’s not even get started on how introverts may feel in open-plan environments, which many companies view as the natural habitat of the digital journey!

Getting everyone on board: 3 tips

So what can companies do to engage these groups better as they seek to make digital progress? Consider these concrete suggestions:

  • Think about your population in a segmented fashion, and work to meet different segments where they are. Many organizations have rolled out the digital journey in a highly uniform manner, with the same messages and techniques deployed throughout. “Re-skilling for everyone! New teams! Welcome to the new world!”  From a change management perspective, this is pure folly – and a misuse of investment dollars that might be spent more strategically targeting smaller groups. Companies should consider both digital experience and behavioral preferences of different sub-populations within their organization, and they should craft messaging, programs, and even environments to hit the right starting point and realistic end point for different groups.
  •  Use resistance to digital as a learning tool. We are not so far into the digital journey that the playbook is finished. Far from it: Think of the 84 percent of digital transformations that fail! Accordingly, when different employee populations put up resistance to this journey, you can gain a host of valuable learning from their negative reactions. For instance, there is a huge amount of calibration going on within organizations right now around what the right model of digital collaboration looks like. So organizations may be well-served by listening to their introverts, and emphasizing a model of agile collaboration with greater elements of “go away and think, then we’ll discuss.”
  • Begin with the assumption that every group has something powerful to give to the journey. Organizations have spent decades learning about the value of a diverse workforce, with an array of viewpoints included in decisions small and large. Then the rhetoric of digital blew this up, emphasizing job loss for workers in either “the wrong” jobs, or those who couldn’t “get there” fast enough. We need to remember what we’ve learned over so many years and approach the digital journey from the point of view that different populations will contribute differently. (Microsoft’s efforts around hiring employees on the autism spectrum is a lovely example of this phenomenon in practice.)


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