They say life can change on a dime. So can business, as most of us discovered in March when COVID-19 forced companies around the globe to shutter offices and ask employees to work from other locations.
While most organizations were already well down the path toward digital transformation and enabling remote workforces before the pandemic hit, those efforts are now accelerating due to our recent experiences. Indeed, Boston Consulting Group says companies now fully recognize the urgent need to be able to address any unforeseen disruptions to supply chains, customer interactions and workplaces.
The natural inclination for these businesses will be to address the problem by throwing technology at it. This makes sense since connected systems helped many ride out the early days of this crisis. And enterprises had already planned to spend $1.3 trillion on digital transformation this year, according to IDC.
Time for digitally ready workforces
Still, even the best technology—in-and-of itself—cannot help businesses head off future challenges and take advantage of potential opportunities. Companies also need to build digitally ready workforces.
What does that mean exactly?
Put simply: a digitally ready workforce is a diverse and distributed group of employees with the critical technological skills, mindsets and capabilities to use modern technology in highly effective ways.
Industry observers suggest this is what companies should consider if they want to thrive or survive in this rapidly evolving digital age.
The truth is every business can do much better if it both deploys the right technology and assembles talented people capable of getting the most out of it. A recent Boston Consulting Group(BCG) survey of more than 200 companies, for instance, found digital leaders achieved 1.8-times higher earnings growth than digital laggards. And at least 80% of business leaders polled by SAP say their digital transformation efforts helped increase profitability and market share.
That’s a key reason why the need for digitally ready workers has never been greater. But as Gartner points out, most organizations are nowhere near finding and hiring them. In fact, “labor market and talent data suggests that many companies have unwittingly built the wrong workforce to drive their future—and continue to do so,” said Scott Engler, VP, Advisory, Gartner.
Building the right workforce
So what would the right workforce look like? The exact makeup would vary from one organization to another. Every company has its own unique set of goals and priorities. But there are a few commonalities across digitally mature organizations.
For one thing, their workforces are diverse. They do not rely primarily on full-time workers occupying every seat of an office or plant. Rather, they mix it up. Rely on a hybrid of agile in-house, contractor and agencysupport from all over the world. This approach invariably provides these organizations access to the richest variety of digitally savvy people possible—not just those in their own backyards.
Digitally ready workforces are also defined more by the skills they possess than the roles they’ve played in the past. Focusing on specific skills enables companies to make sure they’re prepared and able to step up to the plate whenever market forces, technological innovation or customer sentiments change the rules of the game. Near term, this might mean focusing on individuals with special skills in digital marketing, data analytics, DevOps or machine learning. Tomorrow, it might mean going after people with quantum computing or robotics know how. Whatever the case, by leaning into a more diverse and distributed workforce, companies can maximize their odds of having constant access to the vast array of skills they need to succeed.
Overcoming corporate culture hurdles
Of course, that’s often easier said than done. Many businesses, especially ones that have been around a while, have a tough time with this kind of mind shift. It’s difficult letting go of outdated notions about jacks-of-all-trades being more valuable than people with one or two things they do really well. It’s equally tough parting with the idea that full-time employees down the hall are more productive and creative than those who may be located hundreds or thousands of miles away. But that’s the kind of cultural mind shift that must occur for organizations to overcome the significant skills gap that 87% of executives in a recent McKinsey survey say they are expecting in the next few years.
It’s also important that organizations building digitally ready workforces remember the importance of upskilling existing workers who can still contribute. According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), digital literacy remains a barrier to the adoption of digital services enabling remote lifestyles in many countries. This is especially true in lower-income economies where only 32% of populations possess even the rudimentary digital skills.
The training mandate
Some companies clearly understand the need to fill the digital skills gap, a problem that partly exists because not enough students have been exposed to STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) subjects in school. Microsoft, for example, recently announced a global skills initiative aimed at bringing more digital skills to 25 million people worldwide by the end of the year. HP, meantime, has been packing a bus with all sorts of digital technology and taking it on the road to get young people interested in STEAM-related careers.
As companies invest more heavily in technologies that will enable workers to communicate and collaborate across great distances, they must also look inward to assure existing talent knows how to use it. Digitally mature or maturing companies already do this. Amazon, for instance, said it will spend $700 million by 2025 on upskilling programs for 100,000 employees across the United States. Similarly, PwC reportedly plans to invest $3 billion in job training over the next several years for 275,000 workers.
Businesses have a clear and undeniable opportunity right now to use technologies deployed during the global pandemic to build for the future. But true growth and transformation also depends on creating digitally ready workforces capable of using all that innovation for maximum benefit.
Companies that align their talent, technology and business strategy in this manner have a much better chance of withstanding disruptions while positioning for future growth and financial success.
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