How to future-proof your workforce for the digital era

Forward-thinking companies are upskilling the existing workforce while inspiring new digital talent to join. Let's explore their techniques
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Not only do we need to redesign the work we do to be effective in the world of digital, we also need to equip our people differently to work in new ways, think differently about what is possible, and draw on a new toolkit of capabilities. These changes are not just enhancements around the edges: They often challenge everything our people believed to be true about work and working.

At MIT Sloan Center for Information Systems Research we study the digital transformation challenges that large, traditional firms are experiencing. These are companies build on “command and control” mindsets and skills. Leaders were successful because they were really good at implementing a rule-based, structured way of designing and implementing processes.

Skills were honed on a regular basis but were typically incremental and designed to enable the employee to progress in the organization. Careers were planned by HR with learning and development curated to meet those pre-determined paths. Unwritten rules enforced pre-determined times that employees should stay in one role before applying internally to move to another (on average two to three years ), and shifts were at the discretion of higher management. Structural hierarchies were used to frame moves upward or sideways, much like a board game, and there were rules, written and unwritten, of the game and everyone learned how to play.

[ Read also: 7 hard truths about digital transformation. ]

Companies like DBS Bank in Singapore are re-imagining the way work is done.

What has changed? Work has always been adapted to meet the challenges of newways of engaging with customers, new technologies, redesigned processes, and other developments in management thinking. Is this really so different? We have conducted several research projects in the last five years designed to understand the new challenges of work and how high-performing companies are meeting those challenges. Companies like DBS Bank in Singapore, where the transformation to digital business models has been dramatic and well documented, are not only making significant changes to the way they create digital experiences for their customers but also completely re-imagining the way work is done.

Nurturing the digital mindset

In the world of digital, employees not only need to deliver work faster, but also must be more flexible, work with less certainty around outcomes, and work more effectively in teams than ever before. New skills around understanding and being able to use new digital technologies have become critical to success. But, more importantly, employees also need a very different approach to work – often referred to as the digital mindset.

DBS has recently invested in the vicinity of $20 million in in-house learning and development aimed at “future -proofing” their workforce to make them fit for digital – by investing in both digital skills and mindset. They are not alone. High-performing companies are recognizing that they are not just tweaking their employee capabilities around the edges, they are completely transforming their talent to make sure that they have the people with both the skills and approach to work to implement their digital strategies.

In addition to redesigning work and the characteristics and skills of those doing the work, companies are completely redesigning the way work is done. Many companies are approaching this new way of working based on variations of the Agile manifesto and scaling this across the organization.

[ Read also: 7 easy ways to mess up agile transformation. ]

More collaborative and innovative approaches to work prove critical to success.

Scaling agile ways of working arguably generates the most significant shifts for those skilled at working in more traditional hierarchies. Leaders must rely less on directive management approaches and more on empowering teams to determine their own ways of working. Team members have to become more self-directed and transparent in the way they work in shorter, iterative cycles. Not only do digital skills need to be constantly honed to make more informed decisions in these agile teams, but more collaborative and innovative approaches to work prove critical to success.

Don't stop at online learning 

This is transformative for traditional companies, but also painful as old habits are gradually unlearned, and new work skills and habits formed. For the digitally-born companies, digital skills and mindsets are innate and seem naturally intuitive to getting things done. Not so for our 120-150 year old companies. If these traditional companies want to compete effectively for digital talent in a tough market, they must first future-proof their own workforce.

This will require a multi-pronged approach, with skills delivered online via mobile applications, experiential learning through hackathons and gamified learning, workplace coaching and peer-to-peer exchanges, together with more traditional classroom learning. In addition to online learning via their bespoke learning platform, DBS uses a dedicated Hackathon and a “Back to School” program that makes the transfer of new digital skills both fun and tactile.

In another example, BBVA has invested heavily in their Data program to not only build deep digital data analytic skills, but also the broader organization-wide data skills that enable more informed collaborations. These investments and others like them not only upskill the existing workforce but also enable these companies to inspire new digital talent to join and, just as importantly, provide them with an informed and ever-learning community in which to work. In this way, traditional companies are future proofing their people and their companies.

[ Is AI part of your digital plans? Get lessons learned from your peers in the new HBR Analytic Services report, An Executive's Guide to Real-World AI. ]

Kristine Dery, based in Sydney, Australia, is a Research Scientist with MIT CISR. Her research in technology and the workplace has resulted in a range of both academic and industry publications with particular emphasis on mobile connectivity.