In the last century, technological advances primarily impacted low-skilled workers. When mechanized looms were introduced, artisan weavers found themselves without work, for example. Today, the entire global workforce is faced with the changes brought on by rapid increases in computer processing, powerful analytics and widespread connectivity, among other digital developments.

Things are moving so fast that about 65 percent of the children who began school in 2016 will end up doing jobs that didn’t yet exist then, according to a report from the World Economic Forum released the same year.

What does this mean for people already in the workplace – including those who sometimes feel overwhelmed by the array of new digital tools and processes that confront them on a daily basis? And for those senior executives who are responsible for a company’s direction and strategy, even though they are not digital specialists themselves?

Many experts say the most effective way to cope in a quickly changing environment is to embrace a so-called “growth mindset.” That means being resilient and adaptable, as well as cultivating a love of learning that enables you to wrap your mind around new technologies and their implications for you and your organization. This is as true for lower- and mid-level managers as it is for senior managers and board members.

“It’s like learning a new language,” says David Timis, an expert on and advocate for digital literacy. “If I want to learn Chinese, I may be a bit confused about the whole approach for doing so. For those confronted with the digital transformation of their organization, it’s just a new language you have to learn.”

A learning attitude

Timis, an independent consultant with major companies, including Google, has trained tens of thousands of people in Romania and elsewhere to enhance their digital skills. He says that firms have recognized the skills gap and are accepting that not everyone in the workforce will be proficient in all skills, such as a programming language or a tool used in marketing or sales. “Companies are willing to help employees learn new skills, as long as they have a learning attitude,” he says.

He defines digital literacy as an ability to function in the digital world and make the most of it by understanding its components. Other experts have categorized digital literacy into three parts: the ability to find and consume digital content, create digital content, and communicate and share digital content. Important skills include distinguishing false information from reliable information, and in some cases the ability to read and write basic coding languages.

According to a survey by the networking and jobs platform LinkedIn, the list of hard skills companies needed most in 2018 was topped by digital skills: cloud and distributed computing, statistical analysis and data mining, and mastering middleware and integration software. Yet members of senior management are now also expected to be digitally savvy. According to consulting company McKinsey, board members need enough knowledge of technology and the market to understand how digitalization can undermine a company’s existing strategies and stimulate the need for new ones.

All this is not to say that soft skills don’t matter anymore. LinkedIn’s survey also showed that companies valued leadership, communication and collaboration.

Invest the time

Kent Lewis, a digital marketing expert based in Oregon, says soft skills are sometimes harder to come by than hard ones. Lewis, an adjunct professor at Portland State University, teaches digital skills to business owners, those starting a business and people changing careers.

“Millennials coming out of school don’t have any context,” he says. “For example, you can read every book there is about Europe, but if you don’t go to Europe, you lack essential experience and context. I think it’s far easier to teach new ‘digital’ tricks to someone who has been in the workforce and had real work experience than it is to teach a young person business, marketing and a work ethic.”

He adds: “I feel there are plenty of roles where people just need to know the digital basics. They can work with junior employees with sharper digital skills and help by bringing in industry experience and keeping their eye on things.”

Besides taking classes, Lewis recommends setting aside a certain amount of time each and every day to keep up with developments in your sector and market niches. Even though Lewis owns a digital agency and has broad experience of digital tools and strategy, he says he can still fall behind, given the quick pace of developments.

Learn from digital natives

Steve Plume is a 56-year-old Silicon Valley veteran and an executive fellow at the Center for Digital Strategies at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth. He says that staying digitally savvy is often a choice between being an expert or “bringing the grey-haired wisdom to the deal.”

 Meanwhile, older employees who are struggling may be better off reinventing themselves than trying to “keep up with the kids,” he says, adding, “My conclusion is that you can’t catch up with the kids. It’s just not possible. So you have to pick something. What am I going to do?”

That’s not to say that cooperating with youngsters cannot be fruitful. Through his work at Dartmouth, Plume has come across many companies that have implemented reverse mentoring programs in which a millennial is matched with a high-level manager or CEO. The pair then swaps ideas and experiences, and sometimes CEOs are given lessons on things like how to use Twitter. “There’s a whole lot of deliberate pairing of digital natives with digital tourists,” he says. “Digital tourists are the ones who didn’t grow up with digital but have come to visit.”

Just do it

Gaining and maintaining digital skills is also a matter of just doing it, according to Plume. “A lot of people are acting out of fear. Nobody wants to have to go back to university.” He recommends watching short videos to get the basics. “YouTube is probably the greatest learning platform ever invented,” he says.

Plume cautions against falling into a trap of negative thinking. “Just because you don’t know how to Snapchat, it doesn’t mean that you’re obsolete, worthless and have nothing to offer.”

He continues: “Do not give up. Do not get discouraged. It’s just new technology. Every generation has faced this. It’s just moving faster.” The best thing to do, he advises, is to just dig in. “All those decades of life experience just add value.” — Rhea Wessel

Published: November 2018

Images: Danae Diaz for Delivered.