Digital transformation: Why learning needs to catch up

Put digital first – in learning too, says Tess Robinson.

What was the first thing you did this morning? For me, it was being woke up by an alarm that I’d set via Alexa. I told her to snooze whilst I caught up on the news on the BBC app. My Google calendar reminded me that my youngest had swimming.

I arranged lifts for the kids to their after-school clubs on Whatsapp, did 10 minutes of Duolingo (learning useful Spanish phrases such as ‘my turkey eats pineapples’) and had a quick check of my emails – all before I’d even got out of bed. And on a device that fits in my pocket! Could we even have imagined this 10 or 15 years ago?

How impossibly high-tech would that have seemed. Yet now, it’s just my normal everyday life and I don’t really think about it.

I wrote a blog post recently about how my night out has changed because of technology. When I wrote it all down, I surprised myself at just how much it had pervaded my social life over the last few years, without me even really noticing.

Within companies, digital transformation tends to be focused on the customer experience but employee expectations are also growing and shouldn’t be ignored.

From choosing restaurants to booking cabs to finding which pub my friends are in – it’s all done with digital. As consumers, technology is such an integral part of how we interact with the world. It’s changed our expectations of timescales, availability, knowledge acquisition and user experience. Technology is literally everywhere.

Within companies, digital transformation tends to be focused on the customer experience but employee expectations are also growing and shouldn’t be ignored. You can imagine the frustration that people feel when their organisation’s internal processes, systems and even learning are light years away from their experiences as customers in the wider world.

You’ve probably felt it yourself – what a turn-off! For digital transformation to be truly transformative and give genuine competitive advantage, it can’t just be a thing you do for customers, it needs to permeate throughout the whole organisation. Not addressing this may lead to you haemorrhaging your best asset – your people.

Organisational learning has a vital role to play in digital transformation by encouraging behaviour change and creating the scaffolding for this change to take place. But how to do it?

  • Make sure the mission is clear and well understood. If everyone is aware of the bigger picture and their role in it, it will be easier to galvanise the team to change.
  • Allow time and space for people to adjust to the change and learn any new skills they need to make the change a success. It shouldn’t be an add-on to their day-to-day work, but instead an integral part of their day.
  • Encourage people to pivot their thinking to focus on opportunities instead of what might go wrong. This can be hard to do if people are not happy about the change and it does need some practice. Storytelling or scenario based learning can help in this. 
  • Give people the mechanisms to communicate, ask questions and experiment in a safe environment. The best way to do this depends very much on your organisation’s culture and working environment.
  • Encourage communication and collaboration. Allow people to learn from peers who are already doing the new tasks or role that they need to get to grips with. A positive mindset can be catching. 
  • And lastly, embrace failure and fail fast. It’s important not to be afraid of failure as it is vital for growth and innovation. If your culture struggles to tolerate failure, try introducing it in a learning intervention to allow people to practice getting things wrong, reflecting and learning from their mistakes.

Still not convinced of the power of failure? There are so many examples of how failure has led to success. Take post-it notes, for example. In 1968 a chemist at 3M Company was supposed to be developing a super-strong adhesive for the aerospace industry.

His formula went rather wrong and ended up as a low-tack adhesive, but one, he was interested to note, could be repositioned multiple times. WD40 is so named because it was their 40th attempt to create a degreaser and rust-protection solvent. 

Bubblewrap was supposed to be a new trendy textured wallpaper – massive fail! Dyson made 5,127 prototypes before their vacuum cleaner was a success. Alongside failure must come persistence and resilience. Learning can be designed in such a way as to encourage these traits.

The sheer pace of change means that the days of sitting through hours of click-next-to-continue elearning modules are (thankfully) gone. The learning that we design and implement in this new environment needs to be, not only fit-for-purpose in format, but also designed to support the behaviours needed for adaptability, agility and innovation as well as persistence and resilience.

Digital transformation is not just about implementing new technologies. Getting it right is, in many ways, much more about people. In many cases it requires a culture shift and that means training, upskilling and reskilling.


About the author

Tess is a director of LAS. LAS helps people and organisations grow and evolve through digital learning experiences. 


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