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We’re witnessing incredible contradictions in the workplace. On one hand, an increasing number of jobs are being lost to intelligent automation. But at the same time, emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, machine learning, data science, and blockchain are also creating new roles that are going unfilled due to a severe skills shortage. 

People and businesses need to be nimble enough to evolve with the changing skills required to stay competitive. Failure to adapt results in obsolescence. Individuals who stop learning to endanger their careers. And what’s true for people is also true for businesses. Companies that are unready or unwilling to become learning organizations will not survive in the era of digital transformation.

Complicating matters is the fact that the way people learn has also been greatly impacted by digital technologies. Learning today is less about dedicating an hour to training than about consuming short bursts of material while on the go. It’s a symptom of our ADD culture. It’s why traditional didactic models are incompatible with new working habits. People simply cannot isolate themselves and concentrate for long periods of time on a particular topic. Traditional PowerPoints or a “one-size-fits-all” gamut of video-based learning don’t work. They’re not personalized to an individual learner’s abilities or needs. 

This is why it’s unrealistic and self-defeating for organizations to remain committed to a traditional, top-down approach when it comes to workforce skills development. Instead, they need to focus more on empowering their staff to develop themselves by providing employees with the tools, framework, and autonomy to learn.

Here are some key areas enterprises should consider when navigating digital transformation. (Hint: It starts with your people.)

Define and Prioritize Goals

Before you can articulate to your people how and what they need to change, you need to decide the results you’re expecting them to deliver. Are you using digital technologies to improve your basic business model? Have you embraced a new AI-enabled strategy and need your workforce to execute it? Are you seeking market growth through innovation? Do you want more profitability and productivity? Or are you trying to become more entrepreneurial and attentive to customers? For many enterprises, it probably will be a mix of each. But if you aim for all of these goals, you’ll likely achieve none. Pick one or two to prioritize now. With that clarity and focus established, you can explain how you want your workforce to change to the very people who will be doing the changing.

Communicate to Keep Everyone Informed

People want to be “in the know.” If you expect wholehearted buy-in in this sort of transformation, it’s vital to keep every stakeholder informed and aligned on key strategic initiatives. This is not just your employees. It’s also customers, partners, and vendors. Everyone needs to understand what’s happening to truly feel excited and inspired about the future. This means explaining how, what, when, where and, most of all, why. Detail the role each person will play and why you want them to take this journey with you. It’s also important to highlight the benefits derived from this change. Create a detailed milestone plan of the change processes. Share this plan across the enterprise, with your partner/supplier ecosystem, and your customers. Then, when executing the plan, continually update all stakeholders. No one should be surprised by what’s happening.

Start with High-Impact Roles

A workforce transformation will ultimately reach across the entire organization. But you have to begin somewhere, and there are roles and skillsets of some people that are critical to achieving the highest-priority business outcomes right away. That’s the population to focus on first.

This might involve reorganizing people in your organization. Many probably already have the skills you’re cultivating. Find them. Reassign them to places where they can have the greatest impact and be change agents for the rest of the workforce. And, yes, you may have to recruit to fill positions that require cutting-edge skills. But most of all, you’ll need to look at your existing staff and begin the process of upskilling. Look for people whose temperament would lead them to succeed in the new organization – even if their experience isn’t directly relevant in a traditional sense.

Empower Employees

When it comes to behavioral change, top-down mandates often fail. That’s especially likely with today’s employees. They have different expectations from their employers. One Big Four accounting firm called this “citizen-led” to distinguish it from “center-led”. They want and expect to be active participants in any change that impacts them. These are the people who are closest to your customers and to the day-to-day execution of the business. More often than not, they know what needs fixing and how to do it. They will come up with insights and opportunities that might not have occurred to leadership. Encourage grassroots efforts to help foster their investment in the change. Give them ownership. Enable employees to experiment with their own ideas for new ways of working. 

Make a Long-term Commitment to Lifelong Learning

Ensure lifelong learning is aligned with your transformational strategy and over-communicate the key value drivers. Invest in project-and skills-based, educational credential programs designed to help your employees either become more efficient in their current roles or ready to grow into critical roles within the company. There’s a world of difference between saying the organization is going to embark on a transformation initiative and actually doing it.

Commit to a Sustainable Journey

Workforce transformation does not just happen in a few pockets, nor in a few months. It occurs at scale throughout your entire enterprise. A full initiative might take several years, rolling out in stages, building the organization’s capabilities methodically. The time, planning, resources, and cost may seem daunting. But the payoff will be worth it – especially if you manage expectations appropriately.

Don’t try to anticipate everything that will happen. Any initiative of this sort is full of uncertainty. But you can set a direction, put the right people in charge, and plot how your efforts will scale gradually through the entire company – and perhaps your value chain as well. There will be quick wins along the way, and you will start seeing returns on investment rapidly. But this is crucial: Don’t abandon the transformation after your early successes or failures. Be prepared from the start to invest in long-term success, and to let each stage of activity build on the progress of the previous stage.

Track Results and Iterate When Needed

As a leader of the workforce transformation, you need to ensure that all the effort will pay off in the end. There are two basic ways to do this. First, be fanatical about tracking the progress of your workforce transformation. Second, be ready to intervene as needed to course-correct. Tracking results can be difficult in workforce transformation because the value is sometimes hard to quantify and the benefits aren’t always tangible. It’s about trying to measure skill-building and the impact it has on the business. It will vary from business to business, of course. But think about ways to track knowledge gained, improvements in productivity, cost savings, and business outcomes. There also could be metrics on brand health or social media commentary.

The common denominator for any workforce transformation is the same for every business. The people. Transformation at scale takes a deliberate effort. It means connecting employees with the right change initiatives and equipping leaders to share responsibility for the risks.

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