Building Analog Skills for a Digital Future

Oct 2, 2018

Everybody Wants a Piece of Digital Transformation.

There’s a digital land-grab underway. Around every virtual corner, modern-day Colonel Sellers’ cry out, “there’s gold in them thar’ hills”. Everyone is rushing to fill the gaps in digital skills, so they can stake their claim. The internet is full of clickbait articles promising job-seekers advice on the sexiest and highest paying tech jobs. Companies are posting open req’s full of technical buzzwords: AI, IoT, Data Analytics, DevOps, Machine Learning, Full Stack, Cybersecurity, the list goes on…

Unfortunately, according to a LinkedIn/CapGemini report, everybody but the Dutch is pretty much screwed when it comes to digital skills:
Graph of Percentage of Organizations responding to widening of digital talent gap, by geography
Source: CapGemini LinkedIn Report: The Digital Talent Gap

So, the tech industry is responding. Companies like Microsoft and Google are offering and sponsoring free online training. IT and consulting powerhouse Cognizant recently launched a $100M foundation to fund technical education in the United States – not for their own workforce, but just to improve the overall talent pipeline in the country. We’re seeing a greater emphasis on apprenticeships and partnerships between industry and local educational institutions. In short, there’s a lot of attention on filling the technical skills gap, as there should be.

Hard skills are important, but as any new set of technologies becomes commoditized, the basis of competition shifts. I’m old enough to remember when having a website was a competitive advantage. We had a whole economic cycle based on the rise and fall of companies that were going to sell pet food or groceries online – with little more than a handful of web developers. Now my local dry cleaner has a website and IBM Watson has a freemium model for data analytics. Seriously, you could go create a data visualization on their supercomputers right now, for free. Today’s hot technical skills will be ubiquitous tomorrow and firms that rely on being early to the game will have a choice: constantly live at the bleeding edge or find another way to compete.

In any case, the real holy grail everyone is chasing is “digital transformation”. Transformation isn’t just about implementing new technologies to more efficiently do the same old stuff. It’s about enabling businesses to work in new ways. The winners in the digital future will be firms that can drive new business models, new ways of working, and greater customer value by leveraging new technologies – not just the ones with the most efficient back-office or the hippest IT department.

That puts a premium on a very different skillset. That same LinkedIn/CapGemini study identified a series of “digital soft skills” that companies need, including:

  • customer centricity
  • collaboration
  • decision making
  • comfort with ambiguity
  • change management

If you think about it, there’s nothing specifically digital about any of that. These so-called “digital soft skills” are actually analog skills … and they are pretty difficult.

You need employees who can engage people around complex business issues and drive change across organizations. One skill is the sine qua non for all of that: conversation.

I recently came across a book touting 21 irrefutable laws of leadership. Twenty-one seems like a lot to me and “irrefutable” is a pretty high standard. So, I thought I’d just try to have one. I think it’s pretty solid:

Sean's Rules of Leadership #1 It's hard to lead if you don't talk to people

The bad news is that all of those bright early-career people, who you are hiring because of their technical skills, suck at talking to people.

Prof. Sherry Turkle from MIT has done a lot of work examining the impact new technologies have had on communication and relationships. I highly recommend anyone read her book Reclaiming Conversation. In it, Turkle relays moving stories about young people with a very ambivalent relationship to human connection. On the one hand they desperately want it. On the other, they are highly uncomfortable unless it’s mediated by technology. Asking a fellow student out for a date in person or, even on the phone, is too risky. They’d prefer to text where they can control the way they present themselves and maintain a safe distance.
Book Cover: Reclaiming Conversation: The power of talk in a digital age by Sherry Turkle

But I wouldn’t be writing about this, if it only concerned the romantic habits of 20-year-olds. It goes way beyond that. If you can’t ask a friend out for coffee, can you ask a customer for a meeting? Can you ask someone in another department for cooperation or access to the resources you need?

In Turkle’s book, there’s a quote from an executive who routinely asks applicants to a second interview where they have to set the agenda and continue the conversation from the first meeting. Here’s how she describes their reaction:

“They are stunned. They look like a deer caught in the headlights. They don’t want to have another conversation. They were hoping for some follow-up emails.”

Apparently, students don’t even come to professors’ office hours anymore, because they aren’t comfortable having face to face conversations. Turkle asks them if they think they might need to talk to their boss someday. They acknowledge that they will, but they’re not sure when they will learn how. That might be funny, if they weren’t in their senior year. I was on a canoe trip some months back, and I had the chance to talk with a current college student about it. He said, “Well it’s hard, we all only want to go to office hours at the end of the term to talk about our grades. Then it’s too late.”

These are students graduating with degrees from well-regarded technical universities. Your organization will be hiring these students and people like them. They will often bring much-needed digital skills. What they will not be bringing in large degree, are those analog skills – like talking to people.

But, wait! This is not just another millennial-bashing article. The truth is, it’s not just the young people. It seems the more technical and specialized people’s roles are, the more they seek isolation and focus on their work. In Turkle’s book, she talks about a law firm and how its culture had changed from one of collegiality to one of isolation:

“They assemble their multiple technologies – a laptop, two iPhones, and iPad. And they put their earphones on. Big ones. Like pilots. They turn their desks into cockpits. And then they are isolated. You wouldn’t want to disturb the pilot in his cockpit. You wouldn’t want to disturb this lawyer in his bubble.”

My team has done a lot of work with highly skilled and specialized populations in fields like biopharma, telecom, IT, and manufacturing. You could swap the word “lawyer” out for “IT-person”, “engineer”, whatever. Over my career, I’ve worked with managers at all levels in a broad range of industries: healthcare, defense, financial services, hospitality, consulting, non-profits…. We find this dynamic everywhere and with every age group.

The reason we find it everywhere is not because of technology. It’s everywhere because we are all human beings and we all share the same basic drives. Modern technology has simply intensified problems that were already there. It’s given us alternatives to direct connection with others that we simply didn’t have before. Today’s students aren’t fundamentally different than my generation, it’s just that we didn’t have the option of texting anyone. Now all of us do, and if you happen to be younger, you’ve never even known it any other way.

The good news about this problem being old, is that people have been studying it for a long time. There are generations of scholars in psychology and organizational behavior who have researched these dynamics in countless thousands of people across companies and cultures. They each have their own way of framing the problem. Some of the terms you’d recognize like: passive and aggressive, approach and avoidance, fight or flight. Being academics, some of the most interesting stuff comes wrapped in terminology that’s downright obscure. My colleagues and I love that stuff, because we’re a strange breed, but I won’t burden you with it. Instead, let me offer you a simple handle on things:

We’re all wired to avoid and control.

Avoid: Risk, Uncertainty, and conflict, and Control: Outcome, Process, Perception.

We try to avoid people and situations where there’s risk, uncertainty, and the potential for conflict. And we try to control outcomes, processes and the way other people see things, especially ourselves. Those drives aren’t irrational. After all, who wants unnecessary conflict? Who doesn’t want to look good and get their way?

But we also know, from decades of research, that Avoid & Control drives a variety of habits that backfire on us:

  • It’s why college kids avoid talking to people and feel safer in the seemingly controllable world of texting.
  • It’s also why people in corporations sit in endless meetings where nobody brings up the real issues and everyone just nods their head politely.
  • It’s why leaders spend too much time managing operational detail and not enough building relationships across and outside the organization.
  • It’s also why many managers’ idea of coaching looks more like long periods of neglect punctuated with the occasional corrective action plan.
  • It’s definitely the biggest reason why you have a lot of digital, but not a lot of transformation.

In our attempt to avoid risk and conflict in the moment, we often create more risk and conflict down the road. In gravitating to what’s easily controllable, we lose our ability influence what’s really important. We get trapped – alternating between the two poles. Some of our most dysfunctional behaviors come when we try to both avoid and control at the same time.

While this pattern is natural and understandable, it absolutely holds us back from leadership. If all we want to do is keep our heads down and preserve the status quo, then we can get by with a fair amount of Avoid & Control. But, if we’re going to achieve digital transformation, or any other major change, it just won’t get the job done.

Again, researchers and scholars we admire have said a lot about what something better would look like. In the leadership literature, you can parse fine distinctions between being “adaptive”, “transformational”, “authentic”, and so on. You can wade through dense pieces of prose like, “design situations and encounters where participants can be origins and experience high personal causation”. Email me if you want a really long reading list. In the meantime, here’s what it boils down to:

Your people need to engage.

Avoid, Control or Engage: People, Real Issues, Across the Enterprise

If your leaders aren’t engaging people in the real issues, nothing important is going to happen. At least nothing good and important. And if they don’t do it across the enterprise, any progress will be limited in scope and impact.

Engaging requires us to get out of our comfort zone. It requires us to escape the Avoid & Control trap, because big opportunities always come with risk and uncertainty. Big problems are the ones that we haven’t yet figured out how to control. When we address the real issues our organizations face, there will inevitably be conflicting perspectives and priorities.

All this is hard work and it doesn’t happen overnight. But it has to start somewhere. A great place to start is building the ability of people in your organization to engage productively in conversation. In other words: to talk with people across the enterprise about the real issues.

Soft Skills are analog skills and they are pretty difficult

Coming back to our theme, there are some interesting differences between analog and digital signals. With digital signals, there’s not a lot of noise or degradation. For the most part, either you have it, or you don’t. Analog signals can have a lot of noise, but they also have an infinite range. And rather than going off a cliff, they “degrade gracefully”. That means they can still be usable, when less than perfect, and you can improve reception with tuning. Anyone who has fiddled with a radio and enjoyed music or listened to a play-by-play, in spite of some static, knows what I’m talking about.

Analog skills are like that too. It’s not about haves and have nots; it’s about where people fall on a spectrum. Wherever you are starting from, there’s an opportunity to boost the signal. And while you may not get to perfect, doing some fine-tuning can have a huge impact on the quality of the output. The organizations we partner with have already seen tremendous impact from improving these analog skills in their people. In the digital future, the ability to engage people will absolutely separate the winners from the losers.


What are you doing to build these skills now?