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The Workplace Technology Gap: What Does it Mean for You and Your Employees?

Business man shocked at the sight of a computerI recently attended a brunch linner lunch seminar hosted by the Business Marketing Association of Chicago which featured the findings of a study called Talent 3.0:  Solving the Digital Leadership Challenge — A Global Perspective. This seminar was particularly interesting to me, because while it’s common to hear about the importance of employees learning about new technologies to stay relevant in a changing workplace, it’s not as common to hear about how the efforts to do so are actually playing out in the real world. The clashes of technologically adept employees versus those who are having a difficult time embracing new technologies are real, and it’s vital that we talk about them now in order to figure out how to move forward.

So, Digital Walks Into a Workplace…

With more and more consumers and clients embracing new technologies, companies across the board are investing more in all things digital — including their platforms, media and employees. And this is great, right? After all, employees adapt to changes in the workplace all the time: that water cooler with 10 confusing options, the new guy who sings Scorpion tunes in his cubicle, the announcement about the new office and the new (huge) commute. So why should adapting to technology be any different?

Technology in the workplace isn’t just a change to adapt to — but a  potential ticking time bomb for many employees. While we all might not enjoy Scorpion tunes, we can easily ask said employee to stop singing them (or don our trusty headphones). We can’t, however, just ask technology to stop affecting the way we work. It’s making its way into more and more aspects of the workplace, it affects the way people do their jobs, and it complicates the already complicated blend of different generations trying to work together as a team. It also puts a spotlight on the fact that some employees are digitally savvy — and some aren’t. Some are willing to learn, and some are fighting it. Some have a wealth of experience in addition to stellar business skills, while others can work their way around digital media in their sleep. How can we all work together to achieve a common goal while juggling our differences in digital expertise?

A Multi-Generational Workplace Meets Technology

As Forrester Research found, the technology generation gap is widening, largely due to Gen X and Gen Y’s rapid integration of mobile and social behaviors. In almost every online behavior, Gen Y leads the adoption curve. Gen X isn’t far behind of Gen Y in terms of adoption rates, though they specialize in maximizing the functional benefits of technology. Both Gen X and Gen Y outpace baby boomers and mature workers in almost everything technology-related.

This can complicate a workplace situation in which many different generations are working together to reach the same goals. Workplaces are more multi-generational than ever, with Gen Y, Gen X, baby boomers, and mature workers all working under the same roof and struggling to make themselves heard. When it comes to technology, many younger workers don’t think their older counterparts can keep up with them, while many older workers think their younger co-workers lack the experience and work ethic they themselves have.

Organizations, meanwhile, are looking for their leaders who possess classic business management and leadership capabilities  to lead the business through cultural and structural shifts — but at the same time, they need to develop future leaders who will have the ability to operate in technology-driven environments. Add to this the need to bring in new employees who already have digital capabilities, and organizations can have a real challenge on their hands.

Real-Life Workplace Troubles

We’re already seeing these complications in real workplace situations. Recently, William K. Marimow, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer, was demoted to a reporter position; he was told by the company’s new management that despite Marimow’s national reputation as an outstanding print journalist, he didn’t have the background in digital media necessary to continue to lead the paper.

Some companies, however, are wading through these changes more successfully. The authors of the Talent 3.0 study have created 10 suggestions to help organizations successfully build a digital  workplace and thrive in a digital world.  Below, I’ve touched on each of them:

1. Build a comprehensive digital strategy that is shared broadly and repeatedly across the organization.
As the authors say, “You will never reach your destination if you do not know where you are going, how you are getting there and who is on the bus.” A well-articulated strategy that supports the core strategic drivers of your business will help your organization identify and prioritize new business opportunities and anticipate emerging competitive threats. Make sure everyone’s on board — including the CEO and senior execs.

2. Embed digital literacy across the organization.
They’re not just talking marketing campaigns and flashy e-mails to employees, but about internal communications to employee groups and external communications to vendors, suppliers and shareholders. It’s about doing product and market research and initiating multi-regional, 24/7 real-time collaboration. Your organization needs to work to seamlessly integrate your chosen technologies across most all of your business activities and processes.

3. Renew focus on business fundamentals.
Technology and rapid innovation means competition coming at your organization from all sides, at any time. Technology also brings a demand for more transparency to your products and services, and it’s important to continue to focus on the quality of those. The best digital strategy won’t succeed if you suffer in other areas of your business.

4. Embrace the new rules of customer engagement.
Customers are now in control more than ever before, with multitudes of research at their fingertips. Marketing today is less about pushing your brand messages and more about brand intimacy and building relationships through dialogue with customers. Strive to listen and inspire and remember that even though some interactions may be through digital platforms, respect, relevance and responsiveness are still of the utmost importance.

5. Understand global differences in how people access and use the Internet.
People in different parts of the world access, adopt and consume technology very differently, and successful organizations will prioritize geographic opportunities when executing digital initiatives and building teams, and localize programs where needed to account for cultural and lifestyle differences.

6. Develop your organizations’ analytical skills.
Customer data available through digital technologies can do many things for your company — help determine a unique market strategy, recognize and respond to competitive and market developments that could threaten your business model, facilitate critical decisions about product enhancements, improve understanding of how customers interact with your brand across channels, and much more.

Your leaders must be willing to dive into data and learn about the technology advances that enable these initiatives, as well as help to define the most meaningful issues for your business.

7. Focus on the customer experience.
Putting the customer at the center of your decision making enables you to break down those organizational silos and overcome operational and resource barriers that can hinder your technology-driven initiatives.

8. Develop leaders with skill-sets that bridge traditional and digital expertise.
People with both business savvy and digital expertise are in short supply and high demand. Your organization should, in the short term, focus on building a team with the right mix of skills and a diverse group of viewpoints and approaches who can help you think through your opportunities and challenges.

Experienced senior-level employees who didn’t grow up with digital technologies must be willing to take a leap of faith and invest time and energy into learning about them and the opportunities they bring to your organization, while up-and-coming digital leaders must learn to look outside of their digital comfort zones, collaborate with people across your organization in various functions, and build those classic business management capabilities.

9. Pay close attention to cultural fit when recruiting digital leaders.
Web-centric and Web-enhanced cultures, although similar in many respects, are still worlds apart. Your organization must find and empower leaders who can advance digital objectives, given the pace, values, intensity, structure, decision-making process and role of digital in the business.  “Start-up” workers, used to a free-flowing and highly intense culture, generally have trouble adjusting to a corporate environment with more formal processes and slower decision-making. The same can be said for employees from traditional backgrounds who get hired at a start-up; they often struggle to adjust to the intense pace and fast decision-making start-ups are known for.

As these examples highlight, it’s important to assess candidates’ cultural fit within your organization, which can depend on many factors, including the way your business is organized and the pace of activity and degree of senior-level support for digital initiatives. At the same time, your organization should take a look at itself and identify and address those elements of your culture that stand in the way of the collaboration necessary to drive digital initiatives. How is your organization holding itself back?

5. Understand the motivations of your top talent.
The best digital talent is in high demand, and they are often drawn to a certain type of company culture. To optimize your chances of attracting — and retaining — your best people, it’s important to have  a clear digital strategy, strong C-level sponsorship, and an entrepreneurial culture that values experimentation and creativity and encourages employees to contribute.

I’ve summarized these ten guidelines in this post, but you can read them in full, as well as the complete Talent 3.0 study, here (download the PDF).

What do you see as your organization’s biggest challenge right now in an increasingly digital and multi-generational workplace?

Amy K. McDonnell

About Amy K. McDonnell

Originally hailing from Ohio, Amy is the editorial manager on the content services team and has been with both CareerBuilder and the city of Chicago for nearly a decade. She writes on a range of recruitment topics on The Hiring Site, striving to bring a dose of clarity and humor to sometimes complicated issues around employee attraction, engagement and retention. When she's not working, Amy spends as much time as possible reading, pretending to be a chef, writing short stories, eating Nutella out of the jar, waiting for CTA buses and trains, going to see her favorite bands live, and spending time with people who inspire and challenge her.
3 comments
Judith Gunn
Judith Gunn

Interesting article - I work in education where it is still possible for people to teach with a book and a pen. Resistance is strong, age
makes a difference but I am 52 and enjoy and have learnt to use digital in many forms - attitude is all. This stuff isn't hard not if you have learnt to drive, raised kids, have a hobby but it has meant that you can't assume respect for your years and experience if it is not also digital experience.

Judith Gunn
Judith Gunn

Interesting article - I work in education where it is still possible for people to teach with a book and a pen. Resistance is strong, age
makes a difference but I am 52 and enjoy and have learnt to use digital in many forms - attitude is all. This stuff isn't hard not if you have learnt to drive, raised kids, have a hobby but it has meant that you can't assume respect for your years and experience if it is not also digital experience.

Amy Chulik
Amy Chulik

Thanks for your response, Judith -- that's a great point about attitude. I think most people not familiar with technology can learn it -- as you said, it's like anything else that's learned (driving a car, raising kids). While it's true that it may be easier for digital natives to pick up on new technologies because they have been using technology all of their lives, I'm hopeful that leaders are providing those new to digital the tools and the support to advance their skill sets.

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