Organizations that close the tech gap will survive and win

By Brad Holzwart and Liz Valentini, Slalom consultants

Here’s something you often hear from IT teams: “People don’t understand what we do.” That’s true, and it’s not just a problem for them. To effectively collaborate on the crucial decisions that determine an organization’s success, executives, frontline employees, and functional experts must speak the same language.

The current pace of technological innovation—in everything from AI to data mining and visualization—means an organization’s ability to close the gap between IT and the business will determine its very survival. To bridge this gap, employees at all levels must understand the basics of technology. And that begins by developing a tech literacy program (sometimes referred to as a “tech fluency program”).

The lack of a common language creates confusion and frustration. It stymies progress and ambition. A tech literacy program establishes this common language, simplifying complex concepts, sparking new strategic conversations, and equipping employees with the knowledge they need to open new competitive advantages. This is particularly true for legacy companies—the ones that were established before the digital age. These companies risk falling behind digitally native organizations that are primed to disrupt their industry. But it affects all companies.

If organization-wide tech literacy is not prioritized, there will be missed opportunities that could ultimately lead to an organization’s downfall. A survey conducted by ISACA painted a grim digital readiness landscape among leaders. Of the business technology professionals surveyed, 47% said their leaders don’t have a solid understanding of technology and its impacts. That lack of knowledge has resulted in blocked investment in emerging technologies. That makes sense. How can you invest in something you don’t understand?

In short, technology can no longer be solely IT’s territory. It has to be everyone's.

Empower your organization with a tech literacy program

Organizations can begin to bridge the divide by cultivating a culture of tech literacy. The term “literacy” is associated with language learning, and learning a new language—or any new skill for that matter—can be challenging. Think of that daunting feeling you have when stepping off a plane in a country where you don’t speak the language. You struggle to read the signs. You hesitate to engage with local people for fear of making a mistake.

The same holds true when language relates to an industry or area of expertise. When we don’t understand, we are less confident, and when we are less confident, we avoid areas of discomfort and don’t put forth our own ideas at the risk of sounding uninformed or even ignorant. The result: we’re not innovating or actively participating in areas essential to our organization’s success.

A tech literacy program can remedy this. It establishes an organization’s common tech vocabulary. The specific content of such a program will align to the strategic priorities of your business and industry, and enable your people to achieve literacy in the topics most relevant to helping your organization grow. It uses short, on-demand courses to simplify complex concepts using multiple modes of learning to make them digestible and easily translated into everyday business—your business. The result? A workforce empowered by their newfound confidence and comprehension to open new strategic conversations across the organization and pursue new strategic advantages.

So how do you get there?

Let’s look at the four elements necessary for a successful literacy program:

  1. The subject matter
  2. The buy-in
  3. The curriculum
  4. The rollout

The subject matter

How do you know what content is right for your tech literacy program?

There’s a core curriculum that all programs should have—foundational knowledge in topics like cybersecurity, cloud computing, and data and analytics. Then, depending on your industry, strategic priorities, and knowledge gaps, you should add elective courses which could include subjects such as the Internet of Things (IoT), machine learning, and blockchain.

These elective topics can be identified by assessing:

The assessment should also identify the stakeholders, subject matter experts, and sponsors with whom you will collaborate to develop the curriculum. It will also allow your target audiences to emerge. Not every course will be applicable to every person. Perhaps your company is considering machine learning to bolster online customer support and executives need a primer to understand where and how to invest funding. Or your finance department needs a lesson on the dangers of transfer fraud. Employees need only take courses curated for their specific roles and responsibilities.

When everyone speaks the same language, it opens new channels for communication, breaks down organizational silos, and facilitates the flow of ideas.

Slalom | Tech Literacy
Slalom | Tech Literacy

The current pace of technological innovation—in everything from AI to data mining and visualization—means an organization’s ability to close the gap will determine its very survival. Technology is no longer solely IT’s territory, it’s everyone’s. To bridge the gap between IT and the business employees at all levels must understand the basics of technology. And that begins by developing a tech literacy program (sometimes referred to a “tech fluency program”).


The buy-in

When it comes to big initiatives like tech literacy programs, little movement is made without buy-in at the top. Not only are leaders a potential target audience for courses, they play a vital role in communicating the value of the program to the whole organization.

That means executives must see the value themselves. That value is considerable, and usually easy for them to see. Investing in tech literacy can:

  • Spark cross-functional collaboration, innovation, and savings in time, money, and resources.
  • Enable new strategic conversations and planning across the business, resulting in competitive differentiators and other advantages.
  • Empower employees to identify emerging and disruptive technologies that can streamline processes, better engage and support customers, and drive business goals.
  • Create a more technologically informed workforce, which allows companies to keep pace with the ever-rising demands of consumers.

Once on board, executives can serve as advocates by delivering clear messages to senior leadership—and all employees—about the importance of tech literacy. Executive buy-in can also help secure dedicated and sufficient funding for the program.

While endorsement from the top is critical, the program gains the most traction when it has an official, executive sponsor. A sponsor will feel personally invested in the success of the program, and their presence will demonstrate a commitment to the project and build momentum. Sponsor candidates include the head of whatever department is the source of the program’s content—e.g., the chief information or technology officer (for tech-focused curriculum), or the general counsel (for IP-related courses). This sponsor can drive coordination across multiple business functions via a steering committee of key leaders and stakeholders.

Driving that cross-functional alignment is essential, since literacy affects the entire organization. Giving leaders from all functions a seat at the table will build a sense of ownership from the start, and let every department have a voice in the process. Bringing in the right stakeholders will also give your learning program a better shot at long-term success and relevance.

When everyone speaks the same language, it opens new channels for communication, breaks down organizational silos, and facilitates the flow of ideas.



The curriculum

Just because you build it doesn’t mean they will come. You have to entice learners with the right content and the right experience. How to do this in an age of shattered attention spans? Our suggestion: replace boring, outdated compliance trainings with succinct, tailored, and interactive courses. By opting for e-learnings, you can build a curriculum that is engaging and—most importantly—customized to your people and your organization.

When Slalom does a literacy program engagement, we start by identifying our client’s audiences. Because employees at different levels have different needs, we have to get a firm grasp on who the content is for. Executives may care more about the financial impact certain technologies could have on the bottom line, while frontline employees may focus more on the actual application of those technologies in their day-to-day jobs. Once we know who we’re targeting, we conduct interviews to home in on their specific requirements, knowledge gaps, and learning preferences. This results in a blueprint for building a customized program.

That blueprint guides our assembly of the course materials. Our consultants build each lesson by:

  • Gathering inputs from a variety of external sources to nail down standard terms, definitions, and benchmarks to ground the courses in real-world concepts.
  • Layering in organization-specific terminology and examples—such as case studies—to reinforce and standardize your organization’s take on the subject.
  • Incorporating multimedia, such as short videos and podcasts featuring members of the organization to further personalize the course.

This then brings us to the question of the tools we use to build our course. For lessons to stick with employees long-term, our curriculum must be easy to digest and mobile-friendly. We achieve this by limiting courses limited to a maximum of 30 minutes, and using interactive learning tools, and multi-media channels that instill core concepts across various learning styles.

At its core, a literacy program focuses on teaching the basics of a particular subject. The equivalent of teaching “hello, my name is . . .” in a foreign language instead of expecting deep conversations about literature. Finally, we make lessons memorable by customizing them for an organization’s culture and individual learning styles.


The rollout

People who are most successful at learning a new language also immerse themselves in the cultural elements of that language. Similarly, for the language of a tech literacy program to truly take hold within an organization there must also be an appetite for cultural engagement. And change. Let’s look at a hypothetical example.

Let’s say CanterburyCatCo, LLC is comprised of business and technology professionals who sit in different corners of the organization and rarely come together to set strategic priorities and decisions. As a result, there’s often a mismatch in expectations, leading to frustration for both groups when rolling out or adopting any new technologies. CanterburyCatCo uses its literacy program to reduce this frustration. By creating a shared awareness of key technologies, the company’s business professionals build a foundation of key concepts, empowering them to ask more strategic questions of their technology counterparts and better understand the responses. On the flip side, the technology professionals know exactly how much the business understands, and can engage in more productive conversations with their colleagues. In this way, CanterburyCatCo creates a cultural shift from an organization once siloed and disjointed to one working collaboratively and productively towards a common goal.

At the heart of CanterburyCatCo’s cultural shift is a focus on prioritizing and incentivizing continuous learning. A culture of continuous learning enables a more engaged, autonomous workforce that’s better equipped to proactively address evolving business needs. Slalom builds in incentives such as gamification, or a system by which participants earn badges for completion or mastery of a given topic can encourage ongoing interaction with courses.

But even the best programs fail without thoughtful consideration of how they’re rolled out. To achieve the objectives of a literacy program, Slalom is strategic about how we engage key stakeholders. This can include creating a recognizable internal brand for the program, and developing personas that align curriculums with specific audiences. What a finance professional needs from a course on artificial intelligence, for instance, may be quite different from what a business analyst needs.

Then we develop a communication plan with elements such as a teaser campaign or an executive roadshow to build enthusiasm. Communications can be aligned to specific learning journeys or hooked into pre-existing initiatives---a cyber risk mitigation course for Cybersecurity Month, for example.

But how to measure success? KPIs may include:

  • Participation rates: By embedding literacy courses into a learning management system such as Workday we can track participation metrics and completion rates.
  • User satisfaction: A simple user satisfaction survey can target areas for improvement. Other useful feedback mechanisms include focus groups and informal conversations. We use these insights to develop a testimonial campaign, building momentum and excitement around the program with real employee verbatims.
  • Strategic value: This can be a little trickier to quantify, but there are ways to drive and measure it. One method is socializing literacy courses as a prerequisite to strategic conversations. Link learning to annual planning sessions or ahead of enterprise-wide initiatives (think October Cybersecurity Month), and closely monitor feedback following those discussions to gather insight into the ways tech literacy has had a strategic impact.

Measurement should be ongoing to empower you to refine the literacy program as you go. This helps design a program that fits the unique needs, preferences, and objectives of each organization.


Slalom | Tech Literacy

As technology has changed at an unrelenting rate, organizations have been forced to evolve along with it. In an era defined by disruptors, the most successful companies are those that focus on agility and collaboration. Long gone are the days of rigid organizational structures that saw resources reserved to specific departments or teams. This is a key reason why once-dominant giants have been reduced to mere afterthoughts. In contrast, today’s winning companies embrace fluid and flexible structures that prioritize collaboration and resource sharing. To do this with any effectiveness, everyone within the organization must speak the same language. Ultimately, that isn’t the language of tech, but the language of innovation itself.

When teams within an organization begin speaking the same language, the Babel’s Tower of mixed messages and misunderstandings many organizations experience is replaced by a shared and succinct understanding. Shared understanding empowers strategic conversations and delivers lasting results for you and your customers.

So what are you waiting for?

Slalom | Tech Literacy

Ready for your teams to speak the same language?