Digital Transformation: Challenging HR to Challenge Top Management
Digital Transformation: Challenging HR to Challenge Top Management

Digital transformation is creating a generational divide among employees: “digital natives” who grew up in a connected world, versus “digital immigrants” who have to adapt to a changing workplace.

Among the “digital immigrants” are many leaders and top managers. HR needs to bridge this digital divide in a way that enables all the people in an organisation to excel and contribute.

In a MERIT masterclass in Amsterdam on 16 October 2019, Teresa Ramos Martín, director of the Technology and Innovation programme at IE University (Spain), revealed how HR can drive transformation without exacerbating thе digital divide. The exclusive C-level event brought together HR and L&D leaders from companies such as HPE and Signify on a beautiful morning in Amsterdam.

The biggest challenge is with our top people”, Ramos said. She highlighted the ineffective talent management strategies that are currently being used for digital immigrants. The masterclass demonstrated that the problem of digital transformation and top management has a human, rather than a technological solution: HR executives need to take the lead and facilitate some difficult conversations.


How not to drive digital transformation

Ramos shared that she, herself, is a digital immigrant: she remembers experiencing the internet for the first time when working in British Telecom’s research labs. Ramos retired early from her career in telecommunications, as did many of her colleagues, making way for younger talent. This made her aware of a major problem with digital transformation.

Something that I see happening is companies getting rid of top managers that reach a certain age in favour of younger talent that are digital natives,” Ramos said. This approach is far from optimal, “because there is all this human capital going to waste.”

Further, eliminating top talent who are digital immigrants is detrimental to an organisation’s culture and climate. This approach “results in top management feeling really lost… they are really scared because they see their job is on the line, and their egos are on the line”. As their junior colleagues are leading them on technology, some top managers are asking themselves what their own value is.

Yet, Ramos argued, senior talent’s value is critical to the company. “Leaders have the historical background of the organisations in their heads”: they are a source of identity. Over the years, they have had the chance to learn from mistakes and have developed a more critical mindset. Top managers “know what technology is good for and is not good for.

Today, major tech companies like Facebook are increasingly criticised for assuming that more technology is always good. Experienced talent are the ones who can provide a strategic vision that goes beyond catching up with the newest trends.

Excluding non-tech-savvy talent is doing a disservice not only to digital immigrants but to digital natives, too. As top management is sent into retirement, “Young talent are being overpromoted to roles that require a lot of responsibility. All of a sudden, they see that they are in jobs that maybe they aren’t so ready to take on. And we expect them, like a kind of Superman, to… come out a fully fledged leader ready to take the organisation forward.” 

As a result, many digital natives are also “feeling lost”. That is because organisations are not leveraging the value of experienced leaders who have non-digital skills such as resilience, dealing with frustration, managing conflict, and taking the longer view.

HR’s role in the face of this digital and generational divide is to create an environment where both sides can contribute.


What is digital transformation, anyway?

As a model for retraining digital immigrants, Ramos gave masterclass participants a crash course on the digital revolution – no small feat in the span of ten minutes. She provided an accessible, jargon-free overview of digital technologies and how they stack together.

The digital revolution has changed the ways we 1) gather data, 2) transport it, 3) store it, 4) secure it, and 5) process it and find meaning in it. Each step of this value chain is disrupted.

  • More data is available than ever before, thanks to new technologies including mobile phones, social media, and the internet of things.
  • Transporting the data is also much faster thanks to technologies like 4G and 5G, which have low latency. This means that data moves in an orderly way, in chunks that are quickly reassembled.
  • All this data is easy to store once it arrives, thanks to cloud computing. As Ramos quipped, “The cloud is nothing else but somebody else’s server.
  • Then comes securing the data. Blockchain, Ramos explained, is a way to store information so that you can track each “block” and therefore trust it.
  • Once data is gathered, transported, stored, and secured, it needs to be processed. Here, Ramos argued, not that much has changed. “Big data is what in our days used to be called probability and statistics – this is just a glamorous name for it.
  • After data has been sorted and analysed, AI can find meaning in it, helping us see what part of it matters and why.

Ramos’s recap of the digital revolution, worthy of a viral Twitter thread, demonstrated that digital technology is nothing to be apprehensive about. Everyone can grasp it.


Getting comfortable with agility

But it is not only information gathering, storing, and processing that digital transformation has disrupted. It is also impacting organisational structures, compelling everyone to become more agile.

In a game involving dozens of tennis balls, masterclass participants discovered for themselves how teams and organisations respond in an uncertain, changing environment. Under such conditions, there is no single decision-maker – instead, everybody contributes. Different leaders emerge depending on the situation; everyone is open to ideas about what can be done differently.

Agility is “the new way of working – this is where companies are going,” Ramos said. Masterclass participants agreed that “everyone is doing agile.

Agility may not come naturally, however, to top management who are used to a more hierarchical structure. “Top talent are used to ‘information is power’, and now everybody has the information,” Ramos said.

Top managers may be feeling insecure about the new flat hierarchy, dynamic processes, and “servant leadership” style in which leaders facilitate debate, rather than devising solutions. Executives who came of age in a different era and climbed a corporate ladder to get to their position may be resistant to transformation, digital as well as personal.


Embracing a personal digital transformation

Digital transformation is putting HR professionals in a delicate position with regard to top management: they have to solve a problem for people who may not be aware or acknowledge that a problem exists.

 “I find that that’s a very difficult topic to approach,” said Ramos. Top-level executives “are not used to showing weaknesses; they are not used to coming to HR and saying, ‘Look, I feel insecure, I feel I have a gap and I need support.And it’s also not usually the case that HR approaches them and says, ‘Look, I think you really need to develop these skills.’”

HR can help indirectly by fostering a learning culture and a safe environment where trying new things is encouraged.

But direct intervention is also necessary: HR professionals need to address the “elephant in the room” and speak to top managers about their technological blind spots. Ramos advises that HR approach top managers individually. Solutions should be “made to measure”, developed for and with each person.

HR’s task, Ramos said, is to encourage top managers to begin their own “personal digital transformation”. HR should listen to executives' preferences and values. Questions to ask include, “What kind of digital leader do you want to become? Is your personal digital transformation going to be about technology, or about leadership style?

If top managers prefer not to retrain or gain new skills, a consulting role or one coaching junior colleagues may be a solution. Supporting executives in mapping and undertaking their own transition can empower and motivate them.

The solution is to “start asking the uncomfortable questions”. Top managers can be brought into a more agile culture through a personal, sympathetic approach. HR can start closing the digital divide, one conversation at a time.


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By Ani Kodjabasheva