It’s Time to Get Serious about Digital Technology

(August 19, 2013) Even though we’re entering the fifth decade (or more) of the Digital Era, many organizational leaders and other senior professionals have still not fully grasped what that means in terms of their own digital technology awareness, literacy, and engagement. This post offers seven recommended actions that leaders (and others) should commit to immediately and indefinitely.

The Digital Era isn’t coming, and it’s not just getting started. From a technology perspective it is fully established. Still not sure? Just watch the first 5 minutes of The Mother of All Demos, which was created in 1968, and you’ll be amazed at how deep the roots of today’s technologies are. And as illustrated by the timeline below, much of the social and digital technology we think of as being only a few years old has its origins in the mid-1990s (yes, that was 20 years ago!).

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In spite of the fact that we’re decades into a new technological age that has significant economic, social, legal and cultural implications, most people – especially senior professionals and organizational leaders – still have an Industrial Era mindset. They generally seem to operate under the assumption that only the physical world is “real,” and they often view digital technology – particularly social software – with disdain (i.e., it’s silly, it’s something “the kids” do). They use age as an excuse for their own lack of engagement, and enable other employees who are not “digital natives” to stay disengaged as well. They maintain an often-irrational commitment to “how things are done” without giving due consideration to how technology can enable “things” to be done better. And of course they generally remain blissfully unaware of digital technology trends and how the rapid changes that are taking place every single minute of every day will impact their industries and organizations (likely sooner than they think).

To Illustrate My Point…

Earlier this year I conducted a digital engagement audit for a high-end grocery chain with strong brand identity and a reputation for quality. The audit focused on store-based web pages, Twitter accounts, and Facebook pages. Not only was there virtually no brand consistency across the pages, many of them were incomplete, inaccurate and/or poorly set up and designed. If the chain wouldn’t have a three-year old flyer posted on a bulletin board, and they would quickly fix any signage errors in their stores, why do they allow comparable digital errors to exist for weeks, months and even years in cyberspace?

A sales professional who is currently on the job market claims to be a heavy LinkedIn user, saying she’s “drunk the Kool-Aid.” When I recently viewed her profile, however, I found she was using an unprofessional picture, still had her last position listed as if it was current, and generally provided no details about any of her jobs or what she had accomplished. As a job candidate, shouldn’t she do everything she can to ensure she’s presenting herself and her credentials in the best possible light?

I was talking to a third-party recruiter the other day, and she shared that many of her clients refuse to consider work arrangements in which the professionals they hire live in another city and engage remotely and/or via a long-distance commute. They must have all employees on site! Because they’re in second-tier cities, however, it is very difficult for them to attract the best candidates and it takes a long time for them to fill their open positions. If they want to be an employer of choice and hire the best candidates, shouldn’t they be more open to alternative work arrangements when they are appropriate for the job?

Most people are unaware of or ignorant about a host of technology trends that have serious implications. Even the recent Edward Snowden brouhaha hasn’t captured our collective interest to the extent it should. People may be able to identify where Snowden is, who his employer was, and the main government agency that was involved, but their knowledge is likely to be superficial at best, not to mention incomplete and inaccurate. But there are issues and trends that are equally as important that haven’t grabbed big headlines and are barely on people’s radar, if at all – like DDoS (distributed denials of service), cyber security, 3D printing, e-discovery. For example, I attended a free event on cybersecurity in the spring at which some of the leading thinkers in the area were speakers. The room could have accommodated hundreds of attendees, but there were probably fewer than 100 people there. And I have spoken with a number of senior professionals in the manufacturing sector who have limited awareness of how 3D printing is likely to impact their industries. Don’t organizational leaders in particular have a responsibility to have at least a high-level understanding of major digital technology issues and trends, as well as their industry and organizational implications?

When I use the term digital engagement with prospects and clients, they often have no idea what I’m referring to. If I say social engagement or social media engagement, they almost invariably assume I’m talking about how public social media platforms (often LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook) can be used for marketing, branding, and sales. They seldom think more broadly about the underlying technologies and how they can be used internally to enhance communication and collaboration, knowledge management, etc. And they almost never think about the implications of new technologies with respect to things like risk management, skill needs and development, human resource policies, contracts, etc. Shouldn’t professionals understand that taking a holistic view of new technologies is in their best interests over both the short and longer terms?

As a related point, when I speak with individuals about their own social/digital engagement, I routinely find their understanding of what that means is very limited (though they don’t realize it is). They are generally unaware of the true range of options that are available to them, and they operate under a host of naïve and inaccurate assumptions about the amount of time, effort and expertise it takes to engage efficiently and effectively. Why do people persist in believing that social engagement is narrowly defined, simple and easy?

I am connected to many leaders of social and digital technology start-ups that provide organizational or enterprise (versus consumer) products and solutions. Invariably, their social media presences are underdeveloped, with incomplete information, low follower numbers, inconsistent status updates, and little/no engagement. If they are offering a digital technology solution and their warmest buyers are likely to be socially active, why aren’t they taking more advantage of those channels to increase awareness of their brand and solutions?

What Should You Do?

If you are an organizational leader or a senior professional with decision-making authority, you need to do the following, at a minimum. Even if you’re not a leader or senior professional (yet), it’s still worth considering these recommendations and preparing yourself for what lies ahead.

  1. Recognize you have a fiduciary responsibility to understand technology trends and their implications. As organizational stewards, a key part of your job is to make sure you’re preparing your organization and the individuals in it for the future. Simply maintaining the status quo and continuing on a trajectory established in a world that no longer exists is not sufficient.
  2. Make time to become more digitally aware, literate, and active. You are never going to find the time. Fire-fighting and short-term demands are always going to be a demanding distraction. You must carve out time each week (ideally, daily) to focus on non-urgent but critically important digital technology-related issues.
  3. Educate yourself, both conceptually and tactically. That means understanding digital technology trends and issues at a high level, paying attention to how seemingly disparate topics are in fact connected, and experimenting with specific tools and technologies sufficiently to have a basic idea of how they work.
  4. Determine whether digital engagement has true strategic value and how. Irrationally jumping on digital technology bandwagons is a waste of time, effort, and resources. Technology should not be a solution in search of a problem. The key is to know what your objectives are and then determine the best strategies and tactics for achieving them.
  5. Make digital engagement a tactical priority. If being more digitally engaged has strategic value, then the associated tactics have to be made a priority. They can’t simply be layered on top of existing practices, and they can’t be constantly relegated to the back burner. They must be integrated into overall operations efficiently and effectively.
  6. Allocate the right resources. Generally speaking, the financial resources required to invest in new technologies are much less significant than they used to be. The required human resources, however, can be the same or even higher. You have to understand that digital engagement requires new ways of working, and that can mean new skill sets, new positions, and even new departments. Delegating work to interns and junior staffers isn’t always the right approach, nor is expecting “everyone” to do it as part of their jobs. Just as organizations need to use the right tools for various tasks, you need to assign the right resources – and ensure those resources have the capacity, skills, capabilities, training, and guidance to be successful.
  7. Develop good governance. To maximize their benefits, leveraging new tools and technologies requires sound management practices, including rules and guidelines that have never really had to be developed or maintained before. There shouldn’t be unnecessary bureaucracy, but an appropriate balance between freedom and control, order and chaos, is critical.

I know, I know, it all seems so daunting – especially when everyone is under pressure to do more with less. Even though I have been fully immersed in social and digital technology for the past four years, I can relate to how challenging it is. The pace of change and the volume of information are both relentless, and nothing ever seems to be completely “done.” But those are actually reasons to get engaged sooner than later, not justifications for avoidance. Seriously, it’s only going to get harder…

Your Thoughts?

What other recommendations might you make? What challenges do see? What are your personal barriers to being more digitally aware, literate and engaged? I’d love to hear from you!

PS – We’re currently running a survey about Digital Era challenges faced by both individuals and organizations. We’ve gotten some great responses so far, but we’re still looking for more. It’s only 10 questions, so it should be pretty quick. Click here to get started.

This post was originally published on the Denovati SMART Blog.

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