Recognising your digital game-changers

The digital talent gap is no longer at its widest for those with hard skills such as analytics or cybersecurity, but in soft skills like collaboration. By Alexandra Reich

When a chimpanzee is upset, another chimp will mimic the distress to show empathy. Female chimps do this more often than male chimps -- with one amazing exception. The group's alpha male will mimic distress even more often than the females. Among chimps, empathy sets both women and leaders apart.

In the human realm, empathy doesn't rank very high on the list of skills employers seek in future hires. But digital disruption is taking a wrecking ball to much of what was once held true in business.

More than US$1 trillion was spent on digital transformation programmes last year, with little to show for it. A Bain & Company survey indicates that only 5% of such initiatives are successful. The World Economic Forum says it's closer to 1%. Clearly it's time to ask if the right people are in charge.

A deep empathy for customers means looking to delight them rather than settling for the status quo. But it is not the only skill that digital game-changers have adopted. They also demonstrate long-term vision, comfort with ambiguity (and the unknown) and bold aspirations. These are the qualities that propelled insurgents like Amazon, Uber or Airbnb to billion- or even trillion-dollar valuations in record times.

In marked contrast, the top echelons of incumbent businesses are populated by executives with a track record for achieving near-term goals and being very tactical. People who have demonstrated high levels of expertise by being very analytical are also prominent. But technological advances are making these skills increasingly irrelevant.


Already, in the United States, we can see demand for routine tasks dropping, but also demand for non-routine analytical tasks, such as mathematics. In the meantime, social skills and service skills are on the rise. This trend will only accelerate as artificial intelligence automates white-collar jobs previously thought to be the exclusive domain of humans. The World Economic Forum estimates that 65% of today's children will work in careers that don't even exist yet.

As a result, the digital talent gap in organisations is no longer at its widest for those with hard skills such as analytics or cybersecurity. Instead, organisations now struggle most with finding talent with soft skills like customer focus, collaboration and comfort with ambiguity.

The problem for incumbents is that much of this talent is at the bottom of the organisation, held back and paralysed by the levels of hierarchy above them.

Not only is their recruits' talent being wasted, but they are likely to quit and go work for smaller, nimbler outfits. According to Boston Consulting Group, only 25% of the digitally skilled people found in online recruiting databases today are working at companies with 10,000 or more employees.

Incumbents must therefore empower their digital game-changers, starting with the women in their ranks. Women are already outperforming men in school, with increasingly more women graduating from university than men. Last year, Oxford University admitted more women than men for the first time in its 922-year history. But Thailand is well ahead of the game, with 65% of fresh graduates being women.

This is encouraging for organisations dedicated to collaboration and customer empathy. In a study by the University of California in Santa Barbara and the University of Minnesota, behavioural scientists observed men and women in groups. They observed that when faced with dilemmas, men tend to try to signal that they are formidable. Women wish to signal they are cooperative.


It's not just the private sector that needs to start grooming and recognising a different kind of mindset. Schools are where it all starts. We need to teach children to embrace change, to embrace failure, to find new ways of doing things.

Today most schools do the exact opposite. They teach you to sit at the same seat every day, to stay quiet, and to learn how it's done from masters who have all the answers. That kind of thinking will be catastrophic for future leaders.

The subjects we teach need an overhaul, too. Parents obsess over skills like maths, science and history. But students rank those subjects as their least favourite. In a World Economic Forum survey, their top three subjects were art and design, performing arts, and computer science and engineering. Children want to be creative, empathic and digital. They want to learn the skills that will be most in demand tomorrow. But we are not letting them.

In a world where change is constant, we need to promote the dreamers, the hackers, the tinkerers and the coordinators at school and at work. Let them use their empathy to design a better world.

Give them the power to challenge every aspect of how we live and work. And support them to build their ideas. If we do that, we will give them the means to keep their organisation, and even their country, ahead of the disruptions coming our way.

Alexandra Reich is chief executive of Total Access Communication Plc.


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