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From 3 years to 8 weeks—digital transformation is speeding up

“We used to talk about a burning platform,” said Scott Engler, VP of Advisory for CFO/CHRO for Gartner, “and then there’s: ‘You’ve just got to jump across the abyss,’ which is where we are now…. I would argue these are the conversations we should have been having over the last 10 years.” Engler was leading a webinar in July, talking about how COVID-19 moved the deadline for tackling digital transformation (DX) up by years. The challenges of digitally transforming businesses, while keeping operations going, were proving formidable for many companies. Then COVID-19 came along and broke everything. Now, Engler said, digital initiatives have become digital imperatives and, with everything already in shambles it’s easier to pick up the pieces and put them in place in a new way, a DX way. That’s where we are now.

Engler works with companies on strategy, board relations, business performance management, analytics, and leadership. He also works with them on planning for their future workforce in the face of AI, skill changes, and the gig economy. He said the pandemic shrank the digital transformation timeline from three-years to eight weeks. And that’s a good thing for business.

Now, Engler said, digital initiatives have become digital imperatives and, with everything already in shambles it's easier to pick up the pieces and put them in place in a new way, a DX way.

He’s not alone in that perspective. A McKinsey article talked about “the falling barriers to improvisation and experimentation that have emerged among customers, markets, regulators, and organizations.”

“Ask yourself, ‘What are the bold digital actions we’ve hesitated to pursue in the past, even as we’ve known they would eventually be required?’” the author asked. “Strange as it may seem, right now, in a moment of crisis, is precisely the time to boldly advance your digital agenda.”

Most people, the McKinsey article noted, have probably already set up their “nerve centers” to try to figure out what’s next and come up with virtual or contactless versions of their product or service. But with those falling barriers they should consider new partnerships, access to new platforms and digital marketplaces, and be prepared to move beyond their comfort zones.

[Related read: Digital transformation: hard, expensive, and worth it]

Start with talent and hire for DX skills

Digital transformation, Engler noted, does not refer to a single big event. It’s instead a number of discrete points marbled throughout the organization. Gartner data shows that people with the skills needed for DX are being hired to work in corporate functions and various lines of business at double the numbers that the IT department is hiring them. The skills lines of business need might include user experience design, Python, cybersecurity, infrastructure knowledge, game development, API development, AI, and more. McKinsey calls design thinking a key strategic skill.

Gartner data shows that people with the skills needed for DX are being hired to work in corporate functions and various lines of business at double the numbers that the IT department is hiring them.

Engler and co-presenter Lindsey R. Walsh, VP and team manager of TalentNeuron noted that a sales role in the top five tech companies—Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and Google (known as FAANG)—requires skills like engineering, DX, and science. As one Gartner article about the lack of skills threatening DX pointed out, “Even if non-technology companies don’t need employees to be quite so digitally literate as the tech giants, they will need to identify their requisite skills and prioritize a way to acquire them. This is especially critical if they hope to unlock the value of the competitive advantage embedded in the reimagined business model.”

Most companies make strategic decisions and then do budgeting and then workforce planning, Engler said. “It’s backward, and it doesn’t work, and it has never worked,” he said.

“If we don’t consider what talent looks like upfront, we’re going to fail. We need to engage way upstream.” The skills and capabilities are going to lead strategy, he said. Leaders need to be working with data analysts to discern new capabilities three horizons out.

Moreover, they said, the faster organizations can snap up their talent, the better. There’s still a pool out there while organizations get their bearings, but the talent rush will be on soon.

[Related read: Embarking on a digital transformation? Here’s how to bring your employees along]

Get creative about finding or repurposing talent

Historically, said Walsh, HR managers have insisted on industry experience, but that’s a siloed paradigm that should be chucked. Rather, companies should look for transportable skills that can help accomplish a number of tasks.

The analysts suggested disaggregating tasks that need doing into skills, and then hiring for those skills. One example they gave was a company with a task to identify a more appropriate data tool and customize it. The skills they needed included familiarity with SPSS, SQL, Python, design thinking, and service design. The solutions included swapping talent with another department, and hiring a freelancer. And since so many people are working remotely, thanks to COVID-19, there’s no reason not to look in places with emerging talent pools. Growing tech hubs include Austin, Texas; Warsaw, Poland; Buenos Aires, Argentina; and Mexico City.

And since so many people are working remotely, thanks to COVID-19, there’s no reason not to look in places with emerging talent pools.

Another option is to grow talent from within. Wireframing is a skill that is required for DX, Walsh noted, and it’s related to graphic design. So, if you have someone on your team whose focus is graphic design and their existing skills are less helpful, offering them a chance to upskill to contribute to the DX preserves your culture and makes your workplace more desirable for talent.

The companies that have succeeded the most in DX are the startups, Engler said, who don’t have so many layers to get through and can move fast. Suddenly, a lot of companies have been switched from a competition among marathoners to the sprint event.

Photo credit: KaboomPics