Business success in the digital economy requires more than getting bits and bytes right. The human element is often overlooked, and in this article, we share how to bring people to the digital equation through a digital learning and enablement strategy.

From boardrooms to water coolers in all corners of the globe, digital transformation is on everyone’s minds and, in most cases, it’s already happening in their workplaces. Think about remote work, drones delivering parcels, self-service check outs, AI and robots processing insurance claims. Modern technologies are impacting our businesses and work environments and to successfully integrate these new technologies into the business, it requires companies to find new ways of working, evolve their products and services, redefine their customer and employee experience and become agile. But as they prepare for their digital transformation, they are shifting their focus to technology at the expense of a critical and often overlooked area: their people development and digital learning strategy.

Before jumping to conclusions in relation to people development, we need to establish a common understanding of digital and digitisation. Whenever I talk to business leads and HR managers about their understanding of digital and digitisation, I get a colourful bunch of answers. Responses range from: “Digital is when we move from a legacy system to a cloud system”, or “digital is the disruption of our business model”, to “We establish a digital spine in our company, but I am not clear what this means”. Digital still seems to be a mystery and a concept difficult to grasp for many people. If the understanding of digital and digitisation is so blurry and full of questions, how can we determine how to prepare and enable people in a meaningful, yet value-creating way?

A definition that in my view nails down the concept of digitisation comes from Cisco. Cisco refers to digitisation as “the connection of people, process, data and things to provide intelligence and actionable insights enabling business outcomes.”

Cisco’s definition isn’t about digital disruption. It focuses instead on how we combine production factors (including people) to drive better business outcomes (improve the existing business model). Unfortunately, there is often a big focus on technology, process and data. At the end however, it is people who make sense of all these elements, asking the right questions, using technology, data and information in the right way. Consequently, people are the biggest lever in the equation and they must be enabled the right way for business to solve their digital equations. Enablement is more than just training and development. Enablement looks at the motivators, context, and tools.

Going digital requires a solid people foundation

Companies are making substantial digital investments and commitments on digital¹:

  • In 2017, it was forecasted that companies would spend $1.7 trillion on digital transformation technology alone.
  • 96% of organisations see digital transformation as critical or important.
  • 42% of executives say, “digital first” or “digital to the core” is now their company digital business posture.

However, Korn Ferry’s research on digital sustainability shows that despite significant spending and attention devoted to digital efforts, organisations are not seeing enduring results because people are often left out of the picture. Companies are struggling with their digital transformation initiatives because of the people dimension:

  • 75% of organisations are “not very confident” in their ability to execute a digital transformation.
  • 84% of executives believe that their organisations do not have the skills and capabilities to deliver on its digital ambition.
  • 63% of executives believe their digital transformation efforts are stalled because of difficulties in “changing company culture to be agile.”
  • 39% of executives see “resistance to new ways of working” as a primary challenge to digital transformation efforts

What this means is that companies know that they need to transform but there is a blind spot: they are putting their eggs in the wrong basket. To embed the ability to change into their DNA so that they can continually respond to the fast-moving reality of the market today, they need to develop and enable their people.

Four factors for a digital enabled workforce

Preparing people for the digital age requires a fundamental change in four factors – some of which are often overlooked:

  1. Clarity on what drives performance in the digital age.
  2. Development of key competencies and traits.
  3. Enabling people in the workplace.
  4. Reset the L&D department to be able to support the business and people to become a truly digital enterprise.


1. Clarity on what drives performance in the digital age

Korn Ferry’s digital sustainability research of 362 organisations across five industries and 14 countries shows that there are five organisational capabilities that power performance and enable a digitally sustainable business:

  • Connectivity: Consistent collaboration with internal and external stakeholder ecosystems.
  • Discipline & focus: Unequivocal clarity on what ‘digital’ means to an organisation and how to achieve desired outcomes.
  • Agility: Rapid decision-making, execution, and response to environmental changes.
  • Openness and transparency: Deliberate transparency about ethics, responsibilities, and practices. Employees are valued, and creativity is encouraged.
  • Empowerment & alignment: A definitive mission statement and an aligned workforce who are equipped to make decisions.

To develop these five organisational capabilities, companies need to look at them with a people development and enablement lens and to do so, they need to activate the next two factors:

  • Develop the right people competencies and traits that are conducive to developing these organisational capabilities.
  • Enable people to bring these five organisational capabilities to life.

2. Development of key competencies and traits

Our research shows that for people to manage ongoing change, they require a certain set of competencies and traits. Based on 60 years of business and industry expertise, Korn Ferry has identified 21st-century competencies that result in high-impact in businesses.

Learning and Development departments must support their organisations to solve the digital equation and align their development agendas to drive a set of competencies and traits that support the business on its digital sustainability journey:

Competencies² Traits
Customer focus
Tech savvy
Manages complexity
Cultivates innovation
Ensures accountability
Drives results
Builds networks
Values differences
Communicates effectively
Engages and inspires
Shows courage
Manages ambiguity
Tolerance of ambiguity

These competencies are crucial in enabling organisations to develop the five digital capabilities they need for success.

3. Enabling people in the workplace

Once you have developed the competencies and traits that will support the five organisational capabilities, you have solved half of the equation. The other half is the enablement of people. I repeatedly see in my work with clients that competencies development remains fruitless if the organisational does not create the condition for the new skills to be implemented. For instance, leaders that have been developed to make rapid decisions and to react in an agile way to environmental changes cannot bring their new skills to fruition as processes, policies and procedures remain unchanged and hence stop leaders from applying new ways of working. The investment in people and leadership development will not produce the intended return.

Development initiatives are a valuable way to support people to grow and help them to build the right competencies to drive better business outcomes. However, they cannot be done in isolation of the actual work environment.  Companies can use an Enablement Diagnostic tool to take a broader view across development, motivators and work context to better understand how to enable individuals to be effective at the workplace.

A structured approach to understand motivators, context and tools helps companies to identify what potentially prevents leaders in performing in a new way and bringing the digital imperative to life.

4. Reset the L&D department to create a truly digital enterprise

To be able to implement the previous three factors, the Learning & Development function must be fit for purpose. Often L&D talks about a digital learning strategy in terms of micro-learning, mobile learning and learning technology. The core of a digital learning strategy, however, is not the delivery mechanism, but the ability of the L&D department to work in an agile way, hand in hand with the business to develop capabilities for a digitally sustainable organisation. For organisations to understand if people are truly enabled to apply what they have learned, the L&D department has to be part of the digital equation.

More on Learning and Development.

If you are interested in digital sustainability and how to solve the digital equation for your company contact

[1] Gartner, IDC, SADA Systems, Altimeter@ Prophet, Wipro
[2] Based on the Korn Ferry Leadership Architect

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