The premise is simple yet powerful: our world is quickly becoming a digital one.
And, depending on your particular situation, there's anything from a persistent unease that the world might be changing, all the way up to a set of high-priority strategic initiatives being purposefully driven by the board of directors.
Regardless of where your group might be in this continuum, there are some basics at hand.
You'll need to understand what's going on, and why. You'll need to figure out your digital business strategy. You'll need strong leadership who can move an organization forward. You'll need a platform to support the transformation, and some new roles.
But is all that enough? Sadly, no. It's not enough to do all of this in isolation; the broader leadership ranks have their parts to play, otherwise progress will be limited.
But, if you think about it, we've seen this movie before.
The world is changing, again. Every time there's a significant contextual change, we're always faced with the challenge of arming our business leaders with the new skills they'll need. It's not just about bringing in the experts, it's about creating a new category of skills into the leadership ranks.
The world goes global; how do you teach globalization? The world goes sustainable, how do you teach sustainability? The world goes digital, how do you teach digital literacy?
The topic of establishing wide and deep digital literacy within the leadership ranks is now shaping up to be a major challenge -- not only for the customers I work with, but internally here at EMC.
And, while it might not be easy to close this gap, it's going to have to be done.
The alternatives are far harder to contemplate.
Business Is Really About Competing, Isn't It?
I've seen a lot of internal all-hands meetings over the year, and there's no shortage of sports and competition analogies you'll see in people's decks.
We, as businesses, appear to be genetically wired to compete to please our customers, compete against each other, compete for attention in the media, etc. in the great ecosystem of the global economy.
But we live in a faster-moving world. Yesterday's strategies and perspectives on how best to compete don't always stand the test of time. I'm always amused when I come across one of those older business books that tries to divine the strategic secret to corporate success. Except that most of their example companies aren't doing so well these days.
Here comes the digital economy. We're going to have to re-invent our business to thrive and grow in this new world.
Do we -- as leaders -- recognize what's happening, and what to do about it?
Not enough, I'd argue.
I took a stab at this topic awhile ago, but I didn't do it justice at the time. I'd like to correct that now.
Symptoms Are Everywhere
If you meet with lots of different businesses like I do, you'll see evidence of the growing gaps just about anywhere you'd care to look.
Retailers who are justifiably concerned about being "amazoned". Media companies who are fully aware that their old business model doesn't have much gas left, but haven't figured out the new ones. Insurance companies who are being disrupted by newer competitors who've cut out the middleman. Engineering firms who are challenged on how to dramatically improve their ability to get new products to market. And so forth and so on.
Pick an arbitrary industry, and I can tell you what you used to look like, and what you're probably going to look like in a few short years. If you're still around, that is.
You're free to debate whether my views are the right ones or the wrong ones, but you can't argue that there's a broad pattern of organizational re-invention going on: enabled by technology, and necessitated by the inevitable need to compete.
You can find examples of companies that are starting to do the right things: recognizing the challenge, empowering leadership, enlisting IT in the cause, etc. But even the best examples still have their challenges.
Why Executive Digital Literacy Is So Important
Organizations and organisms share a lot in common (beside etymological roots). Both have to learn how to react to external conditions.
Within any organization of a decent size, even though there will be ideally people empowered around the new challenge, it's going to have to be a team effort.
Everyone -- especially at senior levels -- has to understand what's going on, why it's important, what to do about, basic concepts, what's expected, and so on.
By way of comparison, I can point to waves of executive skill set development that have washed through EMC over the years. Quality and Six Sigma. Globalization. Sustainability. Inclusion. Voice Of Customer. New Value Chains. Etc. etc.
So, what's holding collectively holding us back around doing something similar around digital literacy? You know, simply teach all those leaders about social, mobile, analytics, etc.?
Well, it's a lot harder than it looks.
Back To Economics
A surprisingly large number of situations can be reduced to supply and demand, including the topic at hand. You've got one challenge stimulating demand (e.g. a broad recognition that a new skill set is required across the organization), and supply (curriculum and delivery mechanisms to create the new skill set).
If there's no demand for something within an organization (e.g. digital literacy for business leaders), well, that's one kind of challenge.
But I see plenty of examples where the demand is clearly there (including my own company). The problem is clearly on the supply-side. I have yet to find an appropriate and easy-to-consume supply for what I think is needed.
Let's Make A List
So, let's say you were me, and you saw yourself as interested in creating a digital literacy program, aimed at the leadership in your organization.
At a high level, what would you put on the agenda?
Without too much thought, I came up with a rather scary list:
- conceptual: what are digital business models, how are they different, why they are important.
- foundational: components of a digital business model, how they work independently
- architectural: how the components work together to create entirely new value propositions
- strategic: how businesses learn to re-invent their value propositions in a digital world
- evolutionary: examples of how businesses start and grow their digital business models
- cautionary: here are some common places where people run into trouble, and how to avoid them
- pragmatic: here are some things you can do to help out in your part of the business
I mean, I'm fortunate enough to have most of that stuff in my head, and I've certainly met people who have the equivalent in their heads, but how do we get it out of our brains and into others?
And that's the challenge at hand ...
Let's Drill A Bit Deeper
The real problem is that there's a lot to cover and digest, once you start to fully appreciate the topic itself.
For example, if you go back to the post I wrote on digital business platforms, let's double click on just the second bullet on that suggested list (e.g. foundation: what are the components of a digital business platform), and take a quick second-level conceptual tour:
- app factories
- governance, risk and compliance in a digital world
Are you getting a flavor for the structural challenges here?
First, any one of these is a big, hairy topic unto itself. I mean, you could spend a whole day with motivated participants on "social", and it's still likely that a bunch of them won't really get it. Trust me on this.
Second, it's rare when you find an "expert" in any one of these disciplines who can make the bridge to any one of the others. Most of them seem to live in self-contained and self-justified intellectual bubbles, from what I've seen. But what's really needed are the connections between the topics -- how things work together, and not separately.
Third, unless you can wrap any of these topics in plenty of examples (both internal and external), it's all abstract content. It just doesn't sink in otherwise. More time, more work.
Fourth, the people you're necessarily targeting have very demanding (and important) day jobs. It's almost like asking them to learn a foreign language, or play a musical instrument. It's a really big investment, sustained over time, that has to compete with other priorities.
What To Do?
So, if you accept that (a) this is an important strategic challenge, and (b) there are no ready easy-to-consume solutions at hand, what might you do?
For starters, you might start with an official acknowledgement by the people responsible that (a) this is an important challenge, (b) it should start to be on the exec education agenda, and (c) it's going to have to be tackled incrementally, as there are no obvious "happy meal" solutions at hand.
Note: I tend to use the phrase "happy meal" to describe the fervent and naive desire for a pre-packaged, easy-to-consume solution that the kids will like because it's got a toy in it.
We at EMC are fortunate in that we have historically had a fairly well-developed executive development function. Many companies do. If yours doesn't, you've got an even bigger challenge at hand :)
Second, it's likely that you have a few individuals within your organization who are working on various aspects of these topics. They make great guest speakers -- if they're used in context, that is. For examples, we have more than enough people here at EMC who "get it" from one angle or another. I consider them as internal resources when thinking about this problem.
Third, there are plenty of companies out there who've figured out one aspect or another about all this stuff. Maybe they're a vendor or partner to you. More perspectives, more resources. I get roped into plenty of these sorts of engagements with my customers and partners.
Actually, I'm glad to do it.
The Secret Ingredient?
The secret ingredient isn't going to be a surprise -- it's leadership: someone who recognizes the face of a new challenge, and is willing to work towards incrementally addressing it.
Especially if that new, big challenge doesn't have a clear and obvious "owner" in the existing organization, which is almost always the case.
Does the rapid evolution to a digital business model represent a significant threat or opportunity? Probably both.
It's not hard to make that exact case for so many of the companies and groups I meet with -- their industry, their stiuation, their challenges. There are exceptions, but it's only a matter of time before they're starting at the same issues that others are grappling with right now.
I meet people who are in the executive education and development business -- either as a freelancer, part of a company, or affiliated with an institution. They're always pinging me as to what I'm seeing out in the marketplace that they can get ahead of.
Well, folks, this is it. Right now, there's an immediate need for establishing broader digital proficiency around solving very specific strategic challenges. And no one seems to have come up with a suitable answer -- yet. Maybe we'll end up taking what we end up creating at EMC, and packaging it for others to consume, as we have in other areas.
Anyone up for a challenge?