Brave New World

The digital transformation that organizations are experiencing these days as well as the upheaval these technologies have brought about are a frequent topic of discussion and concern. This is not surprising. In what has seemed a mere blink of an eye, management methods in place for decades have been put into question and in many cases overturned; new working habits have begun to replace those that entire generations have known and adopted; traditional HR models seem to have lost their luster and their capacity to attract and retain the talent needed for growth; more disconcerting still, the methods that have helped organizations market their products and services over the past century no longer guarantee that they will survive, let alone prosper.

The era of digital transformation we are currently living is disruptive. From international banks to mom-and-pop shops on Main Street, from NGOs to our local hospitals, everyone is and will continue to be affected by this transformation. Just this year, Gartner published statistics indicating that by 2018, 50% of all business process jobs will have disappeared and that digital jobs will increase by 500%[1]. McAfee and Brynjolfsson’s work, The Second Machine Age (2014), underlines the similarities between the current situation and the advent of the Industrial Revolution in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Their research postulates that 67% of the jobs current found in the market may be occupied by machines within thirty years.

In various exchanges I’ve had with organizations, I’ve often felt a great amount of angst when these predictions are projected on a screen. People often laugh, as if I had just shown a scene from an implausible sci-fi movie, while others express the same sort of discomfort caused by reading Huxley’s dystopian novel. Change is never easy, and new technologies have always inspired both awe and fear. Back in 1675 at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, when machine looms began to replace handloom weaving, a three-day riot broke out England, during which groups of weavers destroyed the machines that had begun to replace their jobs. As history illustrates, in most cases, technology wins. And as a digital native I firmly believe that the digital era provides each and every organization with new means to harness untapped potential, with a few conditions.


Change to the bone

Simply adapting to change is unsustainable. Instead, to paraphrase Ed Lawler and Chris Worley from the University of Southern California, organizations must be built to change (cf. their work by the same title, 2013), which in most cases requires rethinking and redesigning the organization completely. In the Industrial Era, when myriad machines became readily available and promised simpler, more efficient means of production, organizations had no choice but to rethink their entire design and make tough decisions. And if they didn’t they were quickly surpassed by others and died off. Similarly, the era of digital transformation requires the revamping of organizations to be deliberate and thorough, permeating the organization to its core, not an add-on venture or a “quick-fix” that only pays lip service to calm the conscience of top management.

The idea of complete permeation is especially true when it comes to training. I have met many organizations who, in an effort to join the race toward digital transformation, have chosen to train their staff members to use software. Countless solutions are available on the market promising digital literacy. While training is always a laudable decision, teaching a staff member which button to push to create a bar chart in a spreadsheet or how to electronically sign a document is just not enough. The idea of digital literacy goes much deeper and requires a more holistic approach in order to create sustainable value.


Don’t blame technology

Let me illustrate this with an example. A few months ago, I was invited to attend a meeting that was supposed to take place in New York. Being based in Paris, I requested to attend at distance and when time came for the meeting, signed on to the dedicated software the organization used. Six people whom I had already met in person were gathered in the conference room in New York and I was the only participant joining from afar. Throughout the hour-long meeting, I struggled to participate actively. When I tried to speak, I was often interrupted by others in the meeting and by the end felt that my presence was neither very helpful nor necessary. I came out of the meeting asking myself a lot of questions. Given that I knew the hosts of the meeting and we all knew how to operate the technology we needed, why wasn’t our time together as productive as it should have been? Was the technology responsible for creating my feeling of alienation? Of course, it is convenient to blame the technology by saying that things aren’t like they used to be, and that it’s systematically better to hold meetings in person.

Things unfortunately aren’t that easy. We naturally need to know how to operate the software that allows us to hold virtual meetings. Mastering this software–knowing which button to push and when–constitutes a body of technical skills that are not only essential, but are also sadly lacking. The numbers are worrying: nearly 40% of workers in the E.U. lack digital skills and 14% have none [2]. In the U.S., an estimated sixty million people are shut off from jobs because of a lack of digital skills: nearly 20% of American adults do not use the Internet at home, work, or at school, or by mobile device [3]. In the U.K., six million citizens have never used the internet and 9.5 million lack adequate digital skills[4]. To complicate matters, digital tools come and go quickly, they evolve and incorporate new features regularly (think about how many versions of Microsoft Office or Facebook there have been in the past decade). If a training program is intended to bridge this digital skills gap sustainably, it cannot be a one-time affair. Training that targets digital skills must be permanent and evolve continuously.


Digital skills don’t mean digital literacy

But even when this condition is respected, it still isn’t enough. Consider a teenager learning how to drive a car. A range of very different technical skills are necessary: knowing how to ignite the engine, how to brake, how to change gears, where to add oil, etc. However, if the driver wants to get from point A to point B safely and quickly, other skills are just as important. He/she needs to demonstrate ability to analyze traffic density, and to make quick decisions based on each situation. The driver must also respect road rules and practice good road etiquette. All of these skills work together and are interdependent. Each must be mastered simultaneously.

Digital literacy is no different. Academic research generally defines digital literacy as the interdependence of three or more interdisciplinary skill subsets that must work in harmony. Of particular importance, Warschauer and Matuchniak identify these interdisciplinary skillsets as 1. Information, media and technology skills 2. Learning and innovation skills 3. Life and career skills [5]. This categorization reflects that of Jenkins et al. and further insists that digital literacy is multi-faceted and not simply the mastery of computer or technology skills [6]. Eshet-Alkalai notably underlines that

Digital literacy involves more than the mere ability to use software or operate a digital device; it includes a large variety of complex cognitive, motor, sociological, and emotional skills, which users need in order to function effectively in digital environments [7].


Why the meeting wasn’t a success

Since these skills must be practiced simultaneously, they should be learned simultaneously. If an organization’s goal is to make its employees digitally literate (in order to achieve digital transformation), simply training them to operate different types of software only addresses part of the problem. In a word, it is as if these organizations were giving their staff one shoe to wear instead of two.

Anne-Laure Fayard, Associate Professor at NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering, has dedicated much of her research to studying how organizations use technology to communicate. When I told her the story of my virtual meeting experience, she explained that in a traditional face-to-face context, the most important part of the meeting occurs often before it officially begins, when participants shake hands, drink coffee and talk about the movie they saw the evening before. When people use technology, they often jump right into the heart of the matter, and when they take breaks they turn off the video and mute the microphone. In essence, when people use technology to communicate, they often censor the very parts of human interaction that contribute to creating sustainable trust relationships.

This is certainly not to imply that the organizers of my meeting were unworthy of trust or unpleasant people. Nor does it imply that they were unprofessional. But it does underline a need to master other skills to be digitally literate in this given context. Let’s think again about the teenage driver. Driving on icy roads requires specific behavioral skills that are different from those required to drive in rain. Each situation also requires specific analytical and organizational skills (also called “functional skills”) such as considering traffic density and outside influences, such as fallen trees for example.


Skills are contextualized

Similarly, each of the skillsets that underpin digital literacy as a whole depend on and change in accordance with the specific context in which they are used. To understand this, let’s think about my virtual meeting and identify its context. The meeting was a non face-to-face oral interaction occurring in a medium-size group (6 people). Had the nature of the meeting been identical except occurring between two people, the relevant digital skills would not have necessarily changed, but the functional and behavioral skills required certainly would have. The way a meeting is organized and managed depends on the specific context (number of people, type of interaction, physical situation, etc.). Likewise, behavioral skills for a one-on-one meeting are different from those for a small group.

Digital literacy, therefore, is the delicate interplay and mastery of all these skill groups in a variety of contexts, not only one. Like driving a car, it is not only the technical, functional and behavioral skills in one context that mean the driver is skilled; instead it is by mastering the ensemble of all these subskills in various environments that makes a good driver. Since these skills must be practiced simultaneously, they should be learned simultaneously:


Contextualized master skill: Making medium-sized virtual meetings matter
Technical skills Functional skills Behavioral skills
✔ how to schedule a meeting for several participants (Gmail, Google apps, Doodle, etc.)
✔ how to operate software designed to hold online meetings for 6-10 participants (Skype, Evernote, Gotomeeting, etc.)
✔ how to create a collaborative document for several people (Google apps)
✔ how to organize and structure an efficient meeting for several participants
✔ how to collect ideas in a non face-to-face setting
✔ how to foster group innovation
✔ how to manage time
✔ how to take efficient notes
✔ how to give feedback at distance in front of others
✔ how to practice active listening in a virtual context
✔ how to include virtual participants
✔ how to foster non face-to-face group collaboration and trust
✔ how to deal with online group conflict


The tip of the iceberg

Conducting efficient online meetings is only a tiny skillset in a world requiring speedy and complete digital transformation. Training programs must address numerous other skillsets to help organizations face a whole host of challenges and come out victorious.

How can organizations harness technology to innovate? To collaborate? To sell? To target new customers? To attract talent and retain it? To gain visibility and build brand awareness?… Each of these essential skills involving technology comes with its own subset of interdependent, interdisciplinary skills that must be addressed concurrently and contextualized to create sustainable value.

Only when these conditions are fulfilled can true digital transformation begin to happen.







[5] Warschauer, M. and Matuchniak, T. (2010). “New Technology and Digital Worlds: Analyzing Evidence of Equity in Access, Use, and Outcomes”. Review of Research in Education 34: 179–225.

[6] Jenkins, Clinton, Purushotma, Robinson and Weigel (2004) “Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century” MIT Press.

[7] Eshet-Alkalai, Y. “Digital Literacy: A Conceptual Framework for Survival Skills in the Digital Era” (2004)