By Stuart R. Levine

Published in, Forbes

The Covid-19 crisis is driving how businesses are managing technology and it is accelerating rates of change. The digital revolution is spurring leaders who had been resistant to greater use of digital approaches to now trust them and embrace them. Daily conversations via ZOOM and other digital interfaces have streamlined meetings. Techniques using artificial intelligence and cloud-based activities are being adopted more quickly. Cybersecurity is front and center, and executives are deploying technological tools to improve both the customer and the employee experience. Companies can no longer afford the long timelines with often disappointing results that were associated with past tech-transformation projects. The Covid-19 pandemic has created an urgency that is fast-tracking change, and the changes will remain long after the pandemic is brought under control.

Effective digital strategies depend on successful strategies around your culture. It involves the CHRO as much as the CIO. In fact, digital strategies touch every aspect of the C-suite. There must be integrated business and technology management, free of silos, without regard to internal divisions or product areas. In an increasingly digital world, it’s still the human element that matters. Creating value through technology means tackling multiple interdependent dynamics simultaneously, and those factors depend on your culture. It requires alignment between senior management and the workforce. Effective two-way communication fosters alignment. Employees need to understand the digital strategies and the role they play, and leadership needs to have an accurate read on the employees. It requires a culture of learning, whereby people develop and improve the skills they need to adopt and adapt to digital strategies. Most importantly, against the backdrop of an on-going pandemic, it requires that people feel safe and that their families are safe as well. 

Employees now rank health-related well-being as among their very highest workplace priorities. Employee safety is a prerequisite for engagement, motivation, and optimal contribution. Freedom from worry frees up cognitive energy, which can be directed to learn new technical skills and improve on existing ones. Unfortunately, according to a recent study by the IBM Institute for Business Value less than half of the employees that IBM surveyed felt their company was adequately committed to their health and safety. Executives, however, had a different perception. About 80 % of them felt their organizations were doing fine in supporting the physical and emotional health of their people. This is an important wake-up call for taking the temperature, literally and figuratively, of your employees around their perception of the safety of the work environment, a minimum requirement for employee engagement.

The concept of a “learning organization”, popularized by Peter Senge over 25 years ago, is more apt now than ever, as companies immerse themselves in today’s digital world. Learning organizations continuously transform themselves, growing and enhancing the capabilities of their people, providing the organization with every chance for success. When the workforce is continuously learning, feels safe, and knows that management has their backs, they are more engaged, more motivated, and more prepared to handle rapid change. 

IBM, however, raises another flag for management related to learning. IBM reports that only 38% of employees believe the organization is “helping staff learn the skills needed to work in a new way”. And again, management has a different view, with three-quarters of managers thinking they were adequately training their workforce in areas needed to face a more digital future.

Technology is driving both business opportunities and defensive strategies. Meeting the challenge demands a learning culture. Effective leaders understand that enterprise agility and organizational resilience are directly related to upskilling staff, continually enhancing their expertise. Tech-forward business strategies required skilled talent to create and incorporate digitally oriented business models and innovative customer-facing products. 

IBM and others studying digital transformation tell us that management must do better in creating strategies and communications that align leadership and employee perceptions. There should be little daylight between their view of safety, security, and learning. Communication processes should involve a dialogue, the essential two-way street, that relays employee concerns and lets leaders hear how they are really doing. For a learning culture to flourish, leadership needs an insightful read on the employee situation and sentiment and whether the right level of skill building is occurring. 

The CIO and CHRO are a team in interfacing with employees. Employees can describe for leadership’s benefit whether the anticipated outcomes from digital strategies are occurring or whether there are unforeseen positive or negative consequences. These perspectives inform technology and skill-building decisions and provide leadership with firsthand viewpoints on customer experience with the company’s digital approaches. The C-suite needs this information to create alignment around a learning culture in a digital world. 

With major advances on an effective vaccine and a reinvigorated focus on personal responsibility to avoid Covid infection, everyone is hopeful that there is a light at the end of this pandemic tunnel. Individuals and employers are yearning to return to some sense of pre-Covid normalcy in work and leisure. Recent increases in Covid-19 cases, however, extends the timeline for return to normalcy yet again. Still, a focus on employee care and capability improvement puts you on firm ground to face this quickly transforming world. Your people will remember and appreciate knowing that management is doing the best they can to support employee health and provide the skills to adapt to an increasingly digital future. The company’s efforts to see them through this tough time earns their loyalty. After conditions improve and talent again becomes scarcer, people will remember what management has done to support them. They will appreciate the effort and will be more likely to stay with the organization when recruiters call.