The digital skills imperative - RPA and services leaders weigh in

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed May 15, 2018
Without the right talent, digital transformation is a non-starter. But you can't approach digital skills like a checkmark in a box. To unravel that riddle, here's the views of top services and RPA leaders from a spring HfS event.

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Digital transformation is one tough beast to nail down. Overflogged to the point of utter uselessness, we are haunted by the notion there is something of real importance buried in all those slide decks. And there is.

Except that defining digital transformation is a trick shot. One way to look at is: the move to the everything-as-a-service (XaaS) economy, which our own Phil Wainewright took up in our first d-book, Transform your business with the XaaS effect. (free with registration).

In his latest piece, Time to get your digital mojo together - right? How?, my colleague Den Howlett calls lazy assumptions about digital transformation into question. As Howlett sees it, most digital transformation efforts are watered down, and would never pass his butterfly test:

To me, ‘digital transformation’ means one thing – if you can’t explain it in a way that can be characterized as the lifecycle of a butterfly then it ain’t transformation. It’s incremental betterment.

I'll stir the pot with two more things:

  • Absent an industry-by-industry context, the celebrated notion of "disruption" is a blunt instrument, wonderful for collecting keynote speaking fees, but unlikely to result in a useful discussion for customers.
  • Yes, technology is still imperfect, and security/compliance remain necessary obstacles. But as tech barriers lower, it throws the spotlight on culture. And that's where most digital projects stumble. Lack of will, lack of urgency, and ego/politics/paychecks/Wall-Street-preening squash the upstarts. It's really freaking hard to achieve the elusive mix of long-term strategy and jugular, red-tape-be-damned resolve that successful digital pursuits have.

If we accept that digital transformation is possible, we still have the question of how to proceed. Can you start small and pile up wins into company-wide momentum? Or does change have to be organization-wide to have a chance?

That's a debate I can't settle in one piece, but I will say, if you start small, you must still have top-down buy-in, and a platform/build-your-digital-engine mindset (see my recent use case, How BD Digital Health built a smart diabetes app on their own platform with Couchbase, for one example of this approach). I believe that eventually you have to change everything; it's just a matter of how quickly you turn over your own apple cart. Usually, you have less time than you think.

The digital skills imperative - an HfS panel speaks out

One thing we do know: you aren't going far with digital without an effective skills strategy. That's going to be a mix of upskilling, automation/freeing up talent for higher impact or customer facing roles, and effective recruitment and project sourcing (e.g. if youthful talent finds your company as appealing as a minivan, that's problem one).

Den's post riffs on a recent study by HfS Research and Cognizant. For this piece, I'll bring in highlights from a digital transformation panel at the last HfS Research FORA event in New York City, where an all-star panel of services and RPA leaders grappled with these topics. Moderated in his usual "let's air it out" style by HfS Founder and chief provocateur Phil Fersht, the panel had plenty to say on talent.

Jesus Mantas of IBM Global Business Services told the audience that digital skills can't be isolated from strong leadership and team-building:

The skills of a person and [what they need to learn] becomes more important. You as the leader have to take responsibility for placing people in the jobs they can do. If they cannot do those jobs, it is your job to train them to do it, or to replace them and put them [in a better role].

A leader shouldn't blame a digital skills gap on their people:

Don't put it on people, as in "Hey you guys don't have the skills." [The right mindset is]: "No, no it isn't you." You assemble your team, and you are responsible to make sure that they're going to perform.

Nitin Rakesh, CEO at Mphasis, said if you want to talk about digital, you should start by talking about outcomes. Usually, your current process isn't equipped to get closer to the customer:

You talked about this disconnect between alignment, between business outcomes and what core technologies and operations are able to deliver. If you look at three or four core statistics, every CEO's worried about, "Do I know my consumer really well? Is my customer getting the best experience?" Because you go back to what is disrupting most industries, it's the customer experience. Do we actually have a clear understanding of what our customer needs? And can we actually work backwards from designing those products? So this then maybe drives this hyper-personalization.

Then you must confront the pace of your delivery:

And I think finally, do we take too long to make changes? Is our product development time cycle six months or six years? It should really be a matter of few days or weeks, because that's how quickly disruption [is moving].

Once you push towards customer-centricity, you can determine the proper skills blend:

I think if you can align your enterprise to these outcomes, it's really what digital transformation should look like. It has everything that you talked about, from culture to skills to the ability to use technologies. In the end, technology's nothing but the automation of an existing work flow, so how do we adopt what feels best to drive this consumer centric organization? Digital transformation should do that.

One of the big surprises of HfS FORA was hearing Wipro talk with such enthusiasm about crowdsourcing, though when you consider they now own Topcoder it shouldn't be that big a shocker. Count Wipro CEO Abidali Neemuchwala amongst those who see a crucial place for project crowdsourcing in the talent mix:

One of our biggest strengths has been hiring talented people. On Topcoder, I have 1.3 million talented people across the world, who'd perhaps never worked for a company like Wipro full-time, but they are ready to [give part of] their time to do the most complicated data science engagements, and deliver insights at speeds that are unheard of, at prices which are five times smaller than the price we would code today through an RFP, so it's a very disruptive thing.

But that was not Neemuchwala's most surprising comment. He warned attendees that the most successful people in your organization can provide the most resistance:

I'd focus on talent. The talent deficit. Understand what is the need of talent in the future and how you're moving your people out of the comfort zone. Most importantly, the more successful people, because they create the most passive resistance for change within the organization.

This is a critically important point, a vivid reminder that digital skills are not a check box on a project grid. Those skills must be embodied by people who are willing to push out of their comfort zone. Neemuchwala honed in on the developer skill set, which is changing rapidly. Developers who understand psychology? Yes, in some cases.  And get machine learning? Not surprising, but still hard to find. That's not a skill set you would have hired for five years ago.

Another example came from industries like automotive, where geographic know-how is sometimes part of the developer tool kit:

When did IT services companies hire geography graduates who could then do coding? So the profile of the people is completely changing, and right now, I think it's going to be the biggest impact. Companies and operations leaders who are going to be able to hire that talent are going to be successful.

Debbie Polishook, Group Chief Executive for Accenture Operations, emphasized that automation done right isn't necessarily about job loss:

I think it's going to be about the talent and the change... We've automated 30,000 roles in the past three years. That's massive, and we haven't had to lay anyone off. We've been growing fast enough to be able to retrain and retool, but it's a massive undertaking to retrain and get people ready for the new.

On the front lines with customers, it's about learning to talk in the language of outcomes, not just cost savings:

What's really interesting about it is getting people to think differently, back to the change management point. I think about our people that we have on the front end working with our clients, and them being able to tell the story, really what's happening here in terms of "Yes, there's cost savings, we all get that, right?" That's a minimal thing that you get, but it's about what these things can do to really add significant, tangible business value to your revenues, to other items on your P&L.

Final thoughts

I can't capture the spectrum of digital skills needs in one piece. But I hope these field views show how framing digital and culture change must happen first - then drill downs into specific skills needs can happen. But only with the understanding that hiring is changing too, and tactics like crowdsourcing may make the difference between a successful project and a stalled one.

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