Opinion: Key skills for a successful digital transformation
Smart skills are the skills required to work with people, sharp skills are required to work with machines. And one might ask, don't we already call these skills ‘soft’ and ‘hard’? Yes, we do. But do you know why?
The soft and hard skill terminology was coined in 1972 by a research team in the U.S. Army to differentiate people who were good at machine operations, coining these skills ‘hard’, from those who did well in people-related, supervision roles, coining them as ‘soft’ skills.
And since 1972, this ubiquitous terminology has served us well. But just like all other fields of study which get to constantly revise critical concepts, we believe that this terminology needs a fresh, new approach to reflect the current environment and in light of the roles that each play in our day-to-day lives.
But you ask, is this just semantics? I know what you mean. Does it matter how we name the skills, as long as we have them? But let’s think about this. Narratives are created over time; a few years back, ‘catfish’ was only a fish but in today’s vocabulary, it has a whole new meaning. I love this quote from UC San Diego Prof. Lera Boroditsky, a leading cognitive scientist in the fields of language and cognition and former faculty at MIT: “By choosing how you frame and talk about something, you are causing others to think about it in a specific way. We can drastically change someone’s perspective by how we choose to talk about and frame something.”
For example, speaking of the word ‘soft’. Dictionaries define it as mild, gentle, and weak. But what’s soft about navigating competing perspectives and cultures, pitching high-stakes projects, and dealing with office politics?
Analogously, ‘hard’ is defined with words like firm, rigid, and resistant. But should today’s ‘hard’ skills, from engineering to finance, AI ti machine learning —be defined by these attributes, given constant technological change?
How do smart and sharp skills link to digital transformation?
I believe that digital transformation is built on three pillars: strategic, operational and cultural and part of the cultural pillar which I address more extensively in this article is also bringing a new approach to training and upskilling. Many of the companies I work with ask: what skills do we need to develop in our organisations? And while the answer is a lot more complex that this interview allows it, here are the top 10 smart and sharp skills I think are essential for starting the digital transformation journey:
What are the smart skills?
You might be surprised that the first skills that I believe are essential are the ‘smart’ skills and not the sophisticated data science skills.
As I described in the article Why culture is the number one reason for DT failure and how to address it, I think of humans as complex algorithms. One of my students Devika Manor says we are like computers but with mood swings, hunger pangs, and plenty of ego that need constant validation. Therefore, before we start looking at the sharp skills, let me star with the smart ones.
Validation is a human desire to feel seen, understood, recognised, appreciated, engaged. Validation simply sets you up for a more effective conversation. Once the other person feels heard and understood, they will be significantly more likely to accept your side of the story.
Smart Leaders will realise that for many of us, digital transformation is a departure from the past and almost an annulment of the hard work that was built to get us to who we are. Humans resist change when change denies their past contribution. So, learn how to validate not only your staff, but your entire eco-system and build on that.
I think of humility as the recognition that ‘the more in know the less I know’. It’s very easy for organisations to comfort themselves with the success they had so far and develop what ASB President and MIT Sloan Professor Charlie Fine calls ‘strategic blindness’.
Smart Leaders will acknowledge that success was built on learning and failing and we must all realise that the path towards successful digital transformation is highly unknown and scary. But we also have to realise that the ability to be humble is a practice and that arrogance and ignorance are best of friends.
3. Emotional maturity
EM refers to your ability to understand and manage your emotions in a professional and personal setting. So why is this smart skill so important in the digital transformation journey? As Prof. Kanter says in her article Top 10 reasons why people resist to change, change brings sometimes the worst in people: fear of being seen as incompetent, as irrelevant, change comes with a lot of confusion and distraction and increases tremendously the level of stress, and therefore the resistance to change and the protection of the status quo.
Smart Leaders will recognise and be prepared for the emotional stress that their organisation is going to act on and help the organisation to stay in the moment, to be present while being non-reactive or non-judgmental, will validate (see above) their work and present an array of multiple perspectives to help the organisation move forward productively.
4. Multiple perspectives
One of my favourite topics to teach is the three lenses of organisational behaviour developed at MIT by professors such as Roberto Fernades, Deborah Ancona and more and most of my PhD thesis was dedicated to understanding what are these three lenses and how we can use them for a productive organisation. In a few words, the three lenses are: the political, cultural and strategic and they are extremely relevant to the field of DT because each transformation action will create a different reaction from a different perspective.
Smart Leaders will first learn about the three lenses, and then consider how each action in the DT journey should be addressed from the three perspectives.
5. Cognitive readiness
Cognitive readiness is the mental preparation (including skills, knowledge, abilities, motivations, and personal dispositions) that an individual needs to establish and sustain competent performance in our complex and unpredictable environment. Easier said than done and that’s why I kept this skill at the end. Leaders and their teams, have to be prepared to face the ongoing dynamic, ill-defined, and unpredictable challenges of their new digital journey and recognise that this will not be a linear process, but rather one of first nailing it before scaling it.
Smart leaders will be aware of how to first ‘nail it, scale it, sail it’, prepare the organisation for the insidious path ahead and realise that cognitive readiness is part of the advanced conscious processing (slow thinking) enabling leaders to confront whatever new and complex problems they might face.
What about the sharp skills?
I think the sharp skills are easier to understand, hire for and measure so I will spend less time on them, but not because they are less important. However, as a caveat, let me just say, that when I speak about these skills, I don't refer to staff that is highly specialised in computer or data science, but rather I speak of managers like you and I who need to understand what are the sharp skills needed in this new world. And just to remind you, I think that smart skills are the skills required to work with people, sharp skills are required to work with the help of machines.
1. Digital literacy
I think we all need to become digitally literate, which is defined as the ability to use information and communication technologies to find, evaluate, create, and communicate information, requiring both cognitive and technical skills.
Smart Leaders have to invest in constantly educating themselves and their organisations. This doesn't mean that we all need PhD’s in computer science, but rather that we understand how to use, find, evaluate, etc. information for the organisational goals.
Optimisation is the process of making a design, system, or decision, as fully perfect, functional, or effective as possible and at the end of the day, DT is employed to make our lives easier, if not right away, as soon as we can.
Smart Leaders will help their organisation assess how can DT be employed to create optimisation, and avoid doing DT just because ‘I guess we have to?’
3. Analytical reasoning
DT requires us to build this ability to look at information and discern patterns within it… but in order to do so...
...Smart Leaders have to know what kind of data and information is the right one and then how to use it. Just because we sit on piles of data, doesn't mean we have what it takes to use it productively.
4. A,B,C,D+ (Artificial Intelligence, Blockchain, Cloud & Big Data) plus Machine Learning
I think of these 4+1 amigos as the enablers for digital transformation, but honestly, for most of us, this is not the same ABCD we were taught as kids.
Smart Leaders will constantly educate their organization in understanding what these pillars can do for the day to day business, and acknowledge that while we as managers won’t all be fluent in this new alphabet, we should at least “know how to spell it”
5. System Dynamics
One of the most popular concepts coming out of MIT is System dynamics, which is defined as the analysis of how actions and reactions cause and influence each other, and how and why elements and processes in the system change.
Digital Transformation requires a deep understanding of actions and reactions and Smart Leaders will invest in bringing this higher level of understanding not only in their organisation but in their boards and stakeholder and shareholder engagement.
Digital transformation will require the best in us and the best of us. And looking ahead on this journey, I think we all need to be a lot more ‘smart and sharp’ to succeed. Or like my President says “let’s just get a bit more “shmart”!
About Prof. Loredana Padurean
Prof. Loredana Padurean is the Associate Dean and Faculty Director for Action Learning, Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Asia School of Business established in collaboration with MIT Sloan in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia“. Her work focuses on 3 areas: entrepreneurship, innovation and digital transformation and “smart and sharp” skills. Prof. Loredana teaches in the MIT Sloan Executive Education program, she is a public and TEDx speaker, an enthusiastic mediocre gardener, a lover of animals and vegan food.
Q&A: Professor Loredana Padurean, Asia School of Business
As someone who is creating Asia Pacific’s business leaders of the future, what do you believe are the essential skills leaders require?
In many ways, we need leaders who are Renaissance women/men or polymaths, as opposed to specialists of an industry or a field. A polymath is a person with profound knowledge, proficiency and expertise in multiple fields and today’s leaders have to be able to combine various ideas, look at problems in novel and useful ways, and develop a broad and yet still deep set of skills, talents, and knowledge.
You’ve coined ‘smart’ and ‘sharp’ as skills of the future. What are these?
They are replacements for ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ skills, a concept coined by a US Army doctor in 1972 who observed that his pupils had different skills: dealing with machinery required ‘hard’ skills, while dealing with people and paper were ‘soft’ skills. This concept has served us well since, but I find it too binary, not to mention the semantic implications of the words themselves.
Soft implies gentle, delicate, mild, quiet, tender, weak. However, there is nothing soft in navigating competing perspectives and cultures, handling and delivering critical feedback or dealing with office politics. Instead, I prefer to call these skills ‘smart’. Hard implies rigid, difficult, heavy, static. But how can we think of engineering or software development as static or rigid? I believe ‘sharp’ is more apt as such skills need constant updating or sharpening.
I think it’s time to reflect on these classifications, because we can drastically change someone’s perspective by how we choose to talk about and frame something.
How important are smart skills in leadership today?
Smart skills are more important than ever because we live in a world of extreme diversity: generational, ethical, value-based, gender, etc. Gone are the days when giving an order was an effective act of leadership. I personally work with people from five different continents and across five different generations, therefore as leaders, we need to know how to adapt, motivate, inspire and connect. We need to increase our investment in learning about them in action, especially as smart skills are more difficult to develop.
I believe that a successful leader today has to be both smart and sharp. Take cognitive readiness, one of my top 10 smart skills. In order to be cognitive ready, one has to master system dynamics, one of my top 10 sharp skills. Also, did you know that one of the primary reasons why digital transformation fails is not the absence of digital literacy, a sharp skill, but the need for more validation and adaptability, both smart skills. So, instead of thinking of these skills as binary, I prefer to think of them as the yin and yang; co-existing and complementing each other.
So, you can teach leaders smart skills then?
Yes, you can, via a combination of the classroom experience, plus an action component supported by deeply embedded reflection. At ASB we call this Action Learning, and we teach it both in the MBA and in the executive programs. For example, in teaching a leader emotional maturity as a smart skill, first they need to learn what it is, and then act on it, before reflecting on what we did and how we did it. And then to repeat it, but this time with more expertise and awareness. It’s not easy, but that’s why my favourite mantra is ‘the job is easy, the people are not’.
Discover Professor Padurean's successful skills for a digital transformation here