Digital transformation: Middle management, the workforce and digital competencies

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Vinoliah Martin believes that these are all important components of a successful transformation journey.

Vinoliah Martin is a technology leader, researcher, and non-executive director at Mowgli Mentoring, as well as a member of the Women in Tech SA advisory board. She is also pursuing a PhD in Business Administration at the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business, with her research focusing on workforce digital competency and middle management to digitally transform organisations in the insurance industry.

According to Vinoliah, the workforce should not be left behind in the digital transformation journey that most organisations are embarking on. In fact, she believes that middle management should: “Take on the role as a coach to provide guidance and support, create platforms and enhance the development of workforce competencies.

“These managers generally work with the operational workforce while having access to top-level executives. It is therefore imperative that they consider two factors: improving business efficiency and upskilling and bringing humans along for the journey.

“My research focuses on workforce digital competency, which explores three areas: knowledge, skills and attitude,” Vinoliah explains. “These are essential competencies that are required to enact the digital transformation of organisations now and into the future.”

From luxury to necessity

When the Covid-19 pandemic is taken into account, it is clear that digital transformation is no longer a luxury for businesses. “Digital technology has transformed every aspect of society, including the way which organisations and their workforce create value and compete in the market,” she says. “As a result, in order for organisations to survive and thrive in this digital era, it has become strategically imperative for organisations to put technology opportunities and digital possibilities at the core of their business strategy to generate significant value for their business.”

Vinoliah says that in order for organisations to be able to achieve this, they need to consider different dimensions, and one of the key dimensions is the workforce. “What I have discovered is that one of the biggest challenges that organisations face is that the workforce does not have the digital competencies to work alongside technology and leverage the opportunities brought by technologies to digitally transform organisation's processes, products and services,” she notes.

She says that her research is inspired by a McKinsey report from 2020, which stated that 87 percent of organisations around the world have identified this skills gap, and that The World Economic Forum’s report has also alluded to the urgent need to close the global skills gap, which could add an estimated $11.5 trillion to global GDP by 2028.

However, while there is a strategic business need to close this gap and for people to acquire competencies, there need to be efforts made to transfer and retain these skills within organisations, says Vinoliah. “Organisations that fail to do so run the risk of not fully unlocking the true potential of digital transformation if the workforce does not have the required knowledge to utilise the capabilities of technology – the skills to practically apply that knowledge for innovations – and the attitude to leverage technology in an efficient and ethical manner,” she says.

Vinoliah’s research really aims to uncover effective mechanisms that can be used to ensure that the workforce becomes digitally competent to help organisations digitally transform. She also wants to make a positive theoretical contribution to enhance management literature.

So, who should be ensuring that the workforce acquires, transfers, and retains these digital competencies?

“We know that in order for digital transformation to be successful it should be led from the top and all the way to the bottom within an organisation,” she says, “where the CEO is able to make fundamental changes for successful transformation, and understands the opportunities in the market, how to generate value for the business, highlight the risks, and create an environment where business and IT can work together to strategically drive that change.”

However, Vinoliah is paying close attention to middle managers, who have access to the strategic layer of the business while also managing the operational workforce.

What is the significance of this? This is because, as she explains, any transformation or change is usually met with some form of resistance, particularly when it comes to technology. “People often have concerns about digital transformation, believing that it will eliminate their jobs in some cases. As a result, it is critical to gain their support while also bringing them along for the journey, allowing them to collaborate rather than compete with technology,” she adds.

“Middle-management’s role in the digital transformation journey should be enabling the strategy as well as enabling the workforce, and ensuring that the workforce has the knowledge and skills to execute on that strategy.”

Impact of digital competency on the bottom line

Not only will middle management’s role in ensuring digital competency address the global skills gap – it will also have a significant impact on the organisation’s bottom line, according to Vinoliah.

“Although this is just an assumption for and still needs to be proven as true: I believe that if this is done correctly, it would essentially help build an innovative culture to generate significant value for the business in terms of the realisation of new products, revenue streams and brining efficiencies into existing processes to improve customer experience and satisfaction and reaching new customers, thus contributing to improving the bottom line,” she concludes.

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