How To Build Digital Expertise

April 6, 2021

Confused woman

Developing Digital Expertise 

Over the last few years, I have noticed an increased awareness of the importance of digital expertise by many different organizations. While many leaders have embraced and been early adopters of new technologies, others have resisted.

Resistance is not a new phenomenon. From 1811 to 1816, a group of radical textile workers in Nottingham, England, banded together with a secret oath to destroy textile machinery to preserve their jobs. They became known as Luddites, a term now associated with anyone who resists new technology. While in the minority, they can often be identified in every organization.

Several years ago, I was doing interviews in an oil company looking for inefficiencies. As I scanned down the names of employees, two employees were at the bottom of the list. I asked, “What do these two do?” The senior manager for the group said, “They file blueprints.” I said, “Is that a full-time job?” The manager said, “Well, it’s the only job they can do; when we switched to digital, they had no desire and capability to learn the new tools.” While this is an extreme example, I wondered what the impact is on possessing the cutting-edge, digital capability for leaders in organizations today.

A few years ago, one of my clients updated their 360-degree assessments and wanted to measure something they called “Digital Expertise.” I did this by including the following item in the evaluation, “Keeps on top of whatever technological and digital developments that can create a competitive advantage for the organization.” I gathered data from 180 leaders on this and 35 other leadership behaviors that, based on our research, were critical for leaders to be effective. Each of these leaders was assessed on the 35 behaviors by an average of 12 evaluators (e.g., manager, peers, direct reports, and others). I gathered this data from leaders before the pandemic. I was curious how much influence this digital capability would have on a leader’s effectiveness.

In the graph below, based on the 360-degree assessment, I divided leaders into five groups according to their digital effectiveness ratings. The bars in the graph represent the overall leadership effectiveness rating. This research shows that poor digital effectiveness skills have a more substantial negative influence (leaders in the bottom 10% were 28 percentile points below average) than having excellent digital skills (leaders in the top 10% were 17 percentile points above average). One implication of this is that people expect all leaders to have excellent digital skills. It is the lack of these skills that now has the greater impact on a person’s perceived effectiveness.

Digital Expertise and Leadership Effectiveness

Skills and Behaviors that Enabled Leaders to Build Digital Effectiveness

I asked the question, “What skills or behaviors did leaders possess that improved their digital effectiveness?” Looking at all the behaviors assessed, I identified four behaviors that showed the largest difference between high and low-scoring leaders in digital effectiveness. I was seeking insights into the actions that would help leaders to improve.

  1. Growth Mindset. Carol Dweck describes two different mindsets that impact an individual’s effectiveness. A fixed mindset assumes that people are born with a particular set of talents. These are fixed. A growth mindset assumes that a person can learn new skills throughout their lives. Leaders with a fixed mindset have the motto, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Those with a growth mindset challenge themselves to learn and develop new skills.

Digital Expertise and Age groups

The graph below shows the percentage of leaders with above-average digital effectiveness by five different age groups. It is clear that as people age, a lower percent were rated above average at digital effectiveness. The good news here is that even in the 61 to 70 age group, more than 1 out of 5 were perceived to possess good digital skills. They presumably had a growth mindset.

  1. Courage to Change. Change is difficult and presents the possibility that a person may fail. Having the courage to change is demonstrated by learning a new skill, asking others questions, and being open to others’ feedback. Learning digital skills is no different than learning how to golf. Those who practice, seek to improve, and are open to coaching from others inevitably get better. But their colleagues are moving forward. In reality, those who tread water are falling backward, because the vast majority of those around them are constantly improving their technical skills.
  2. Clear Vision of the Impact of Digital on the Business. (Digital curiosity.) Leaders who were most effective at digital effectiveness had a clear line of sight between the business today and the possibilities of a digital future. They resisted being stuck in the “good old days” and looked forward to a very different future.
  3. Desire to be a Role Model. Many leaders have become comfortable having other people manage digital technology for them rather than learning it themselves. Several years ago, I met a senior leader who had his secretary print out all of his email messages for him. He would then read the messages and, in longhand, write responses, then give them back to his secretary to respond. I only learned this because I asked the leader’s secretary why it took the leader so long to respond to his email messages.

Impact of the Pandemic on Digital Expertise

In 2020, almost every employee across the world was impacted by the pandemic. In order to cope with working from home and other changes necessary to reduce risk, digital effectiveness was moved from a “nice to have skill” to an essential skill. It’s no longer an option but a necessity. After working from home for a few weeks, I had a realization, “We don’t need an office.” With email, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, WEBEX, and other technology, we continue to have internal team meetings, work on projects with clients, hold training events both domestically and internationally, and speak virtually at conferences. A second realization was, “We don’t really need to travel as much as we used to.” Several things that used to seem essential, I’ve learned, are not that important. But what is absolutely clear is that the importance of digital effectiveness will only continue to accelerate.

-Joe Folkman

(This article first appeared on Forbes.)

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