Not many companies have thought about digital inclusion in any great depth, so live examples of best practice are a bit thin on the ground. But what we can say is that leaders must approach digital inclusion with an awareness that any given staff base comprises a diversity of backgrounds, perspectives and experiences around the use of digital tools.

That diversity spans three categories:

  1. Digital natives Staff who have grown up with digital technologies and feel comfortable with using them. When a new tool is introduced, they have little trouble accepting and adopting it – however, they may not be well versed in the challenges of digital change management, as some of their colleagues (see below) may move at different speeds.
  2. Digital immigrants People who didn’t grow up with digital technologies, and are not fully comfortable with using them, but are willing to learn the ropes from their more digitally aware co-workers, or online tutorials.
  3. Digital ignorants Employees for whom digital technologies feel foreign, frustrating or even fearful. These people may also have had negative experiences with digital tools, which have derailed their learning process.

When embarking on a digital transformation project, every leader must understand that a balance of those categories exists within their organisation in some shape or form. So, don’t just assume that your employees know what you know. Take a look at your working population and spend time identifying everyone’s challenges and attitudes.

For a digital transformation effort to succeed, all three of those groups must succeed. And that means overcoming barriers.

One barrier is that, as we head into the future of work, leaders are tending to focus mainly on short-term upskilling: a new innovation comes along, staff are trained to accommodate it, and then everyone moves on until the next big game-changer arrives and understanding it becomes mission-critical. But what leaders really need to do is build a culture of self-directed, sustainable, lifelong learning around digital technology.

A second barrier is that this type of culture simply won’t be possible unless leaders are willing to delve into the psychosocial and sociocultural reasons behind the three categories of technology acceptance. If you’re not addressing those factors at the outset, then any training effort you introduce may not tackle the correct issues in the correct ways.

A third barrier is that the diversity of technology acceptance we see in groups of employees is reflected in groups of organisations – even those that operate in the same supply chains. Technology attitudes at the companies you do business with will differ from those of your own personnel, and their hardware and software will differ, too. How can you collaborate effectively if you are not on a level playing field in terms of infrastructure, as well as skills and competencies?

When seeking to improve digital inclusion and get ready for broader transformation projects, leaders must assess their organisations in the context of four domains:

  • Technology What are your adoption rates like for tools such as the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence and blockchain? How aware are you of other, emerging technologies?
  • Data How prepared are you to understand and work with different forms of data and extract from them a range of compelling insights?
  • Processes What sort of journeys do your digital stakeholders experience? How can you digitally augment – or fully digitalise – your existing business processes?
  • Change management Do you understand how digitalisation differs from digital transformation? And are you equipped to navigate a transformation agenda?

It’s important for leaders to role model digital acceptance. Leaders must demonstrate that they are advancing their own knowledge and skillsets through research and training, and that they are aware of individual attitudes among staff towards particular digital hurdles. They must also dedicate time towards onboarding and supporting employees – and making the learning experience fun, which is key to securing the retention of new digital skills.

In any case where digital acceptance is low, I would recommend that the organisation names a specific leader as ‘digital champion’, to raise awareness and point the way forward. But if senior management take the view that awareness exists, just at different levels, they must ask every leader to be a role model. To succeed, you must bring everyone along with you. And that will require input from leadership figures across the organisation.

Digital innovation is generating a lot of business opportunities. But the kind of values that are created through digital are determined by the workforce you have, and how they are involved in these new processes. A lack of diversity in terms of opinions and representation can have a decisive impact on how you as a business operate in the digital age.

Voices from our community: Tomoko Yokoi is a digital transformation thinker and adviser, and co-author of "Hacking Digital: Best Practices to Implement and Accelerate Your Business Transformation".

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