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Digital transformation is upending talent expectations

Digital transformation is upending talent expectations
June 24, 2021


2020 has forced many organizations to take on faster, iterative, and more aggressive approaches to digital transformation. They did this to accommodate new market rules, take advantage of new opportunities, and offer enhanced .

With these efforts, leaders are also realizing that bringing along their talent, and addressing talent challenges, has never been more critical to the success of their transformation efforts. According to  that surveyed 400+ business and IT decision-makers across the globe, lack of skills within the organization is one of the top three challenges in furthering digital transformation. Leaders are increasingly paying more attention to this aspect in their attempts of digital acceleration.

Digital transformation initiatives reveal growing talent gaps

Organization-wide digital transformation initiatives typically address challenges related to four key areas:

  • Disconnected parts: Siloed divisions and multiple instances of software systems and inconsistent data prevent financial visibility and transparency and delay business decisions
  • Lack of end-to-end execution: Fragmented and cumbersome business processes that prevent efficiencies and collaboration
  • Lack of agility: Difficult to integrate new acquisitions and pivot quickly toward new sources of revenue
  • Need/desire to reinvent customer experiences: Provide a unique, faster, and engaging customer experience across their products and services.

These operational challenges are typically reflected in the workforce and how employees perform. With time, companies may have attracted and rewarded employees that know how to adapt to the inefficiencies, develop workarounds, and optimize how to function in complex environments. As a result, employees may be less likely to want to reinvent, or challenge the current model, because they’ve learned to succeed and survive in it.

In addition, companies may not have invested over time in evolving skillsets and behaviors, blending in new approaches/perspectives through new hires, or recognized the growing gaps in their workforce. These different forces compound the workforce gaps and make digital transformation harder to plan, initiate, and execute successfully, leading to non-optimized customer experiences as well.

Finding and engaging the existing talent potential

But in these gaps, leaders can also recognize the talent promise and potential that lie in their organization. The same adaptability and flexibility that employees have demonstrated in adjusting to complex, convoluted processes, and interactions in their organization, demonstrate their potential for reimagining, reinventing, simplifying, or automating the work.

To engage the workforce in the transformation process, leaders can focus on three key actions:

  • Show early commitment and authenticity
    • Leaders must be willing to demonstrate early support and commitment to the upcoming digital transformation
    • Being inclusive, inviting people to early planning discussions, encouraging them to reimagine what the future could look like, with visible support, are techniques that can be used
    • Leaders must do so with authenticity and candor, outlining the boundaries of the exercise, and sharing with selected employees how long and arduous the journey may be
    • Often, early workshops to discuss current challenges and how to address them provide a great opportunity for employees to lean in and demonstrate their interest and potential; this is a great chance to find employees with the courage and mindset to create the future, and not protect the existing turfs, power, or status quo
  • Give an opportunity
    • While assembling their core team for the transformation, leaders have a crucial responsibility to provide both a shot and a challenge to selected employees
    • The role must be both a real chance to design the solution and a personal challenge to learn new skills or levels of responsibility
    • Challenging people positively (not threatening them) can help them stretch and contribute in the most compelling way
  • Surround the team with expertise and encouragement:
    • Employees want to be successful and empowered; they also want support and access to expertise when they need it
    • To complement the knowledge about the company’s ways of working, leaders must recognize where external expertise is needed and find ways to provide it in a way that makes the core team more powerful (not inadequate)
    • Choosing the right consulting partner, providing the right training, connecting with others who can share past transformation experiences are ways to empower the core team
    • Finally, leaders must remain engaged, present, and supportive to help their core teams hit their stride

Understanding and managing talent expectations

Throughout the digital acceleration life cycle, the entire company landscape may evolve, including talent and its expectations. Most organizations will experience attrition at key roles during the transformation.

Throughout the digital acceleration life cycle, the entire landscape of an organization may evolve, including talent and its expectations.

Leaders need to actively manage their team’s evolving expectations by:

  • Letting them experiment
    • Experimenting is an essential part of learning and also aligning as a team; successful core teams learn to trust each other and constantly evaluate how to get the work done
  • Creating situations where it’s okay to say “I need help”
    • If employees are challenged in their transformation roles, they’re bound to experience situations where they don’t have the answer
    • Allowing them to partner with others, sharing where they are struggling, and getting them the help, greatly maximizes their chances of success (and for the core team too)
  • Using the core team’s motivation for a better solution to drive the change
    • Core team members can imagine the new world/solution together and keep each other accountable on their commitments
    • It’s often the sum of the individual drives of wanting to build something better that generates the organizational momentum at scale
  • Rewarding and recognizing through bonuses, promotions, or role expansions
    • Digital transformations are long, arduous journeys, and careers don’t take a break through them
    • Leaders can work with their HR counterparts to reward, recognize, and help advance the careers of those who are contributing and demonstrating strong value
    • Mid-transformation promotions or expansion of roles are often great motivators and opportunities to celebrate accomplishments
  • Staying connected to the mission, purpose, and ambition of the transformation
    • One essential role of a leader is to continuously reconnect the core team and stakeholders to what the transformation is really about, thereby improving the business and customer experience
    • It provides a chance for each employee to reconnect their own expectations with the broader purpose of the transformation, and a way to re-energize for upcoming milestones
  • Finally, how you run the digital transformation program is a reflection of what you’ll achieve in the actual transformation 
    • If the objective is to drive toward a more simplified, connected, and agile way of working, practicing those behaviors during the transformation itself is crucial
    • It’s a great way to experiment/pilot and learn as we go
    • It’s also a powerful testimonial to a leader’s commitment to actual and sustainable change

Conclusion: The no-going back rule

Recognizing talent gaps, engaging and unleashing talent potential, and managing talent expectations are key factors in successfully executing digital transformation and offering better customer experiences.

There is one more lesson that is really important. Once employees have tasted empowerment, independence, and experimentation, this is how they will want to continue to work going forward. The challenges, trials, and hardships that they’ve gone through also make them tremendous, credible champions for future change. As leaders, you may have created a new generation of contributors, and they need to stay engaged to continue to help the company evolve.

The digital transformation will also likely have completely changed expectations and norms on managing talent, sometimes forcing other groups to look at their own talent in more proactive and engaging ways. That’s a great outcome, and a great opportunity to engage your talent to stay ahead in the digital transformation game.