3 ways building digital acumen can impact business success

Investing in digital means investing in people. From improving the customer experience to boosting employee retention, here's how digital acumen can benefit your organization
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The value of agility and real-time information grew in ways companies could never have imagined during the pandemic. Suddenly, organizations had to lean in on technology to help colleagues work seamlessly and intuitively – from anywhere in the world, including their own homes and remote workspaces. We were well on our way to delivering a “Digital Dow” by early 2020, but technology implementations alone weren’t sufficient for what we were about to experience.

Sixty percent of our workforce continued to work on-site, in labs, manufacturing spaces, and other essential roles to keep our plants running and delivering for our customers. And many salaried and other workers transitioned to a new remote work environment in which they were alone yet needed to be connected to colleagues, customers, and partners.

In short, technology alone wasn’t going to get us where we needed to be; people needed to invest time to learn and use the platforms that we had put in place.

We are working within our company to aggressively improve adoption and optimize usage of our digital capabilities. (I recently named an enterprise change leader in that role, recognizing that this goes further than implementation and adoption.) People need to understand why we’re changing and where their work fits in.

[ Also read IT leadership: 3 best practices to strengthen today's teams. ]

Whether it involves launching new projects, making incremental improvements, or working to drive adoption, we are taking the time up front to deeply understand the “people” impact of the change and ensure that those who will be most impacted know what they need to do to be successful.

I strongly believe that you can’t invest in digital and hope to be successful without also investing in people – both inside and outside of IT – and helping them enhance their skillsets.

Building digital acumen is essential across our organization if we’re going to realize the true potential of what we’re trying to do with digitalization – from the CIO and information systems teams to sales, supply chain, communications, manufacturing, R&D, and more.

Here’s a closer look at the impact that building digital acumen has had for us at Dow.

1. Improved customer focus

Technology alone doesn’t foster better collaboration, eliminate siloes, or elevate performance – people do. We have to continually encourage our people to embrace new ways of working, seek learning opportunities, and develop their skills as we roll out new tools or new practices.

Digital is enhancing so much at Dow – for our people and for our customers. It’s helping us to innovate and deliver faster for the markets we serve. It’s creating a frictionless, intuitive e-commerce buying experience for our customers. And it’s providing real-time robotics, AI, and analytics to improve our manufacturing operations and make work safer for our colleagues.

Technology alone doesn't foster better collaboration, eliminate siloes, or elevate performance – people do.

We’ve made investments in digital tools specifically aimed to help the customer experience at Dow. Our researchers can expedite product development, integrating high throughput research and advanced modeling techniques. Our digital collaboration platforms and customer sentiment analysis help our teams to build relationships and better understand market needs.

Upskilling the workforce on these capabilities across all business functions translates directly to improved customer focus and experience. When employees can effectively interpret the data, make smart business decisions based on what the data’s telling them, and take advantage of digital platforms to make their lives and jobs easier, it’s going to impact our company’s reliability, productivity, and the results we deliver to customers. When digital adoption and literacy skills are integrated across the entire enterprise, not just in IT, we can reinvent the customer experience at the same time we are reinventing the employee experience. The two go hand-in-hand.

2. Future-ready employees

Seeking to build digital acumen skills across the organization has provided several opportunities for cross-functional career moves and peer mentoring. Our IT colleagues are taking opportunities to lead and hone the soft skills they need today, like design thinking and agile working methods.

In our manufacturing plants, for instance, digital procedures help to minimize the potential for human error because they strengthen our work processes and improve reliability. This data is vital to making timely decisions, whether someone is performing maintenance or an inspection. Our IT team is teaching plant employees how to use those tools because they play a critical role in developing the capabilities and maintaining them in the long term.

With 130 different manufacturing sites with multiple plants at each site and tens of thousands of procedures, it has a key impact on productivity and reliability when employees have digital skills on the field versus needing to rely on the IT organization.

Other areas in which our IT team is helping to build digital acumen include sales, marketing, and public affairs. Those teams are now using digital platforms to create everything from virtual events to content-rich videos to engage our customers, whether that’s helping them see what we do in our labs virtually or getting a closer look at products. We’ve also equipped our tech service people with VR headsets that help them troubleshoot at a customer’s production line.

[ Want to strengthen organizational resilience? Get the Harvard Business Review Analytic Services report: Maintaining momentum on digital transformation. ] 

Everyone in today’s workforce is faced with learning new skills and evolving as their jobs and professions evolve. We’re working to bring all colleagues along the Digital Dow journey, as it ultimately makes everyone involved more collaborative and focused on better, faster business outcomes.

3. IT culture that attracts and retains talent

Building digital acumen across the organization is helping us attract and retain the right talent for the roles we need today. As a science-based company, we employ a lot of colleagues who have specialized skills and specific degrees. From an IT standpoint, however, we’re looking at a different set of criteria and skills – both technical and human skills – and in some cases, we’ve looked outside our industry for these individuals. For example, we’ve hired former NASA robotics engineers to build custom mobile robots for us designed to conduct remote inspections in dangerous or difficult-to-access areas.

When you hire, promote, and collaborate with people with different professional backgrounds and perspectives, it also positively adds to the culture within IT.

It’s also helping us retain talent. Improving digital acumen gives many employees something exciting to work on and learn, and for our newer-generation employees, these digital technologies and skills are ones they want to work on. They’ve grown up with technology, and they want to use digital solutions at work just like they do at home.

For example, our investments in a digital buying experience cross sales, supply chain, commercial, digital, communications, and IT. The traditional nature of our industry was creating a big disconnect in the ways in which our customers interact and buy products in their personal lives with how they were doing business with Dow. Now, we’re able to offer seemingly simple options to our customers – like better shipping visibility, product availability, and real-time technical information – all digital investments that improve their overall experience with Dow and keep them coming back.

When you hire, promote, and collaborate with people with different professional backgrounds and perspectives, it also positively adds to the culture within IT. The key to making this happen is encouraging our IT teams to help them understand the business value of adopting our new capabilities. They do so when they collaborate outside of their team and develop new cross-functional and cross-business partnerships. More collaborative working teams bring more diverse voices at the table. Knowledge, collaboration, and diverse perspectives are all critical to driving success and staying aligned on business priorities.

Building digital acumen for the future

Given the speed at which digital transformation is happening, technology is going to have an increasingly important role in all areas of every organization. As we move forward, it’s essential that we bring more people into the core IT function, break down any remaining silos, and open up the lines of communication.

CIOs can get there by listening more. Over the last couple of years, we have all worked extra hard to stay in contact with our employees. We need to double down on this effort – reach out to people outside of your immediate realm and further down in your organization. Connect with people you’ve never talked to before or get a broad base of employees who don’t typically work together on a call. Facilitate these conversations, and really listen to what’s happening in all areas of the business. This may be how you find the next great idea to take you further down your digital path.

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

Melanie Kalmar
Melanie Kalmar is corporate vice president, chief information officer and chief digital officer for Dow. She drives the global strategy for information technology, digital capabilities, business process solutions and analytics to advance Dow’s growth and business strategies.

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