Stakeholders need transforming as much as digital does

I discovered this partly drafted post whilst looking for something today. It was started in late 2017. At that time digital transformation was the priority for organisations and was a source of great anxiety in the learning world (this does have a familiar ring to it). What with the pandemic and all, I think the pecking order of anxieties has changed, though. With due apologies for narcissism, see what you think of this three year old thought:

Digital is the transformation that will not go away. Despite acres of written coverage and a ubiquitous place at every conference table, there is rising demand and no sign of decline. It is always easy to be dismissive and cynical about buzzwords. Let’s face it, many of them deserve it, as anyone who has tried to synergise something surely knows. I reckon that digital transformation can be offered some form of exemption, however. It is often handled in a confusing and flabby manner, which does it no favours, but there is a real urgency as those who hide from it or pay lip service visibly drift from relevance.

My recent travels have revealed some troubling senior stakeholder views on the topic of digital transformation of a team, service, department or process. To be fair, again, these folks have signalled a recognition that ‘something must be done’ by using the DT phrase in PowerPoint. They have then revealed a recognition of a genuine problem to solve (or that they have read a broadsheet newspaper in which the phrase was bandied liberally). So far so good.

My brow has furrowed where the conversation has moved on to the diagnosis and best response. Here I will generalise for the sake of diplomacy and brevity. Genuine transformation is scary and hard – one of the main reasons it happens so little. Faced with the scary and hard, in this context, common responses are:

  • Setting up a project
  • Inviting technology vendors to tender
  • Reorganising a team or department
  • Appointing someone as digital champion (good day to be ill)
  • Start digitising content (whatever that means)

To be clear, none of these are bad ideas. In fact, all but the second, are fine enough ideas. None of them are transformational though, even in combination.

My sketched notes (not ready for publication) suggest that further thoughts moved in the direction of changing mindsets and culture as necessary conditions for real, Big T, change. Further still that, for learning functions and services, transformation cannot occur if business stakeholders and customers retain existing expectations. The challenge being that delivering what is already done but in digital form is not transformational, it is a channel switch. Whilst efficiency and scale can result, audiences get the same fayre.

Looking back on these thoughts from my pandemic perch, I wonder that there is now a deeper risk in some quarters. That is, the last 18 months have required a universal switch to digital delivery but to digital delivery of the same services. Having ‘digitised our content’ the feeling is that the task is complete: programmes are online and VILT is everywhere. Digital job done, with traditional expectations being met via a new channel.

Digital has been transformative because it has upended traditional expectations. It requires that we offer great user experiences on the foundations of connection and data. In the context of learning, those experiences need to be highly personally relevant (by which I mean interesting and useful, not just engaging). Connection needs to extend to expertise and experience, to information, answers etc. not just to instruction and instructors. Data, in its many guises, needs to inform our decisions at all stages of the user lifecycle, not only in the programme. The problems we need to solve extend beyond digital delivery of training. I suspect we have some stakeholder management is required to realise these benefits?

It falls to us in the learning professions to change those expectations of what our services can become in a digital world. We need to show what is possible and demonstrate efficacy from evidence and experimentation. We need to find suppliers who can inject imagination and external capabilities into our teams. We, in many cases, need to develop our capabilities to embrace those of digitally native organisations (we hosted a conversation on this topic earlier in the summer).

These challenges are not new. There are signs that the industry is changing, even if backed into it by events. We also have a significant advantage from the last year and half that can demonstrate the switch to digital tools does not bring the entire edifice to the ground. We can find things out and get things done and have solid experience to build on.

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