Digital: When Ignorance Isn't Bliss

Kerry Brown

Surprisingly, I was late to the iPhone game. Like many, I loved the keyboard and email capabilities of my BlackBerry and didn’t understand what all the fuss was about…until I got an iPhone. Then, my smartphone (like everyone else’s) became an extension of my person—more like oxygen and a life tool than a phone. I didn’t know what I didn’t know —I wasn’t aware of what I was missing until I had the new technology in my hands.

Digital is new and uncharted territory for many. Technology is changing the way we do almost everything. Several factors have contributed to the rise of technology—it is becoming more and more affordable, which makes widespread usage more feasible for any company. It’s also becoming more viable—reliably supporting users’ technology needs. For companies, this is good news, but also potentially bad news if not adopted widely or supported effectively. The final factor of technology proliferation is one that is extremely important, but often overlooked. That factor is desirability—and any company investing in technology must consider making it desirable and consumable by its workforce.

Radical change at its simplest example is the smartphone, but even more broadly, devices are now using natural language where interacting with Siri and Alexa is commonplace and computers have algorithms that can read facial expressions and identify patterns. These technologies are already fundamentally changing how humans interact with and consume technology, and the workplace is no exception.

Digital workforce implications

We all know that digital technology is everywhere in the workplace, but does it really change the way we work? The answer is a resounding “yes!” Yet according to a study by the Technical University of Munich, 64% of respondents worldwide admit to not having the skills necessary for digital transformation.

Their concerns are valid. Oxford University examined 700 job descriptions across all job types and found that 47% were likely to be replaced by technology within a decade. Another 19% were moderately likely to be replaced. With that in mind, part of the challenge in digital transformation is anticipating how people will work in this world and how AI, robots, and people will be integrated into a new and more efficient workforce. How will people interact with these digital forces in the workplace?

In the digital continuum below, the evolution of the workforce begins to bring clarity to expected opportunities for transformation and potential areas of need for your workforce.

non-learning versus self-learningSource: SAP

It is worth identifying where you and your organization sit on the continuum of digital transformation. Where are you now? Where do you want to be and when? Where will technology and competition drive you? What leadership and workforce capabilities are needed to support your road map?

As you develop your future workforce, here are some key implications to address:

  1. Jobs will change—and some kinds of jobs will go away. While recent studies show that automation and machine talent will replace existing workers, that doesn’t mean those jobs are gone forever—just that human/machine collaboration will increase and that workers will need to continuously learn new digital and analytical skills.
  1. How and where we work will change. Technology allows people to work from almost anywhere. Workers may rarely go into an office or meet their managers in person, and collaboration with people in different countries will likely increase. Employees will need to consistently learn new skills to keep up with constant change, and employee engagement and adoption will be the ultimate testament to a company’s return on technology investment.
  1. The digital workforce of the future will require different leadership. Executives and managers must learn to lead a more remote workforce and engage employees differently. Leaders must also learn to lead by example—embracing a digital mindset themselves and making decisions based on data.
  1. Teaching and learning in the workplace will change significantly. Learning will be just in time, constant, and personalized. Learners will be able to design their own journey based on the skills required by their jobs—in real-time. Careers will be managed differently and companies will compete hotly for new global talent.

Often, the largest value comes from using technology in a disruptive manner and changing business models. As business model transformation can be proactive or reactive, equally the workforce needs to respond in an agile and nimble manner. A deliberate strategy will allow you to be more responsive to disruption.

The topic of digital is still not well understood by many, in particular as it relates to the workforce. How or if we make transformation desirable will determine success short and long term. This blog series will explore the following questions, providing guidance and examples:

  • What’s really changing? What does the digital workforce of the future look like?
  • How can my organization effectively merge digital business and digital talent to harness new capabilities?
  • Who will your workforce be, from top to bottom, what roles and skills will be needed?
  • How does talent need to evolve to respond to digital transformation?

For more on this topic, see Leading In The Digital Era.


About Kerry Brown

Kerry Brown is the VP of User Adoption at SAP. She is an international speaker on change management, learning, talent and organizational development, social and collaboration, interacting with diverse global occupational cultures and industries, including many Fortune customers.