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There's a new movement afoot in the corporate world. Yes, IT still must speak the language of business, but the business side must step up and be more fluent in technology and digital tools.
As technology becomes increasingly important, CIOs need to understand the concept of digital fluency and -- just as important -- understand how best to promote it. Doing so can help improve a company's capacity for innovation and digital transformation. That's because when employees, from leaders to front-line staff, better understand technology, they are also empowered to better use it to assist with company success.
What is digital fluency?
Definitions vary, but the concept of digital fluency requires understanding the language of innovation and the role technology serves. That means people across a company should understand how available technologies can improve processes, create new opportunities and transform how work gets done.
CIOs are well-positioned to encourage and champion that understanding.
"To me, promoting digital fluency and literacy means being an active promoter and champion of technology within the business," said Josh Hamit, CIO of Altra Federal Credit Union and a member of the Emerging Trends Working Group at ISACA, a professional association focused on IT governance.
"It's also incumbent on a CIO to be actively engaged and educated on emerging trends and disruptors that business users will inevitably be exposed to. The CIO can and should help educate the business on technology innovations and their potential application within the business," Hamit said.
He's not the only one who thinks it's important to help employees throughout the company improve their high digital fluency quotient.
"I think there are disruptions that have happened in the market that have led to this extension of digital literacy beyond the traditional technical workforce," said Abha Dogra, senior vice president of digital technology, chief architect and North American CIO for Schneider Electric.
Business functions are more engaged in finding digital solutions for their needs, she said. At the same time IT and business teams have broken down the walls that had historically separated them, leading to more collaboration. And low-code platforms have moved some development work out of IT and into the hands of the business users themselves.
Those disruptions demand that the business be more technically literate, Dogra said.
"You have to have much more digital acumen across the workforce," she said.
The idea of creating a technically literate workforce beyond the IT department has been around for a while. Now that need is arguably urgent. CIOs and their executive colleagues are finding that the need for high digital fluency quotient across the entire business is greater today than ever.
"Having them understand the language of innovation and technology is important so they understand and can imagine what's possible, so they'll understand where [the world] is heading and can get a better understanding of the competitive landscape," said Jeff Wong, global chief innovation officer at EY, a professional services firm. "If there's not that understanding, getting buy-in and funding for innovation and digital transformation is going to be harder to get."
5 signs of digital fluency
Here are some helpful characteristics of a company with a high level of digital fluency.
- Company leaders have created concrete definitions for terms such as innovation and digital transformation.
- Employees understand what various technologies are and how each one can help further company goals.
- Employees are not sidetracked by hype or the "bells and whistles" that vendors might demo, but instead ask wise questions.
- Employees realize line of business technologies don't exist in isolation, but instead are part of a larger corporate technology ecosystem.
- Company leaders have created a robust technology training system that rewards employees for achieving digital fluency.
Why is a high digital fluency quotient important?
The need for companywide digital fluency reflects how business strategy and technology strategy have become inseparable in today's digital world, said Omar Akhtar, research director and senior analyst at Altimeter, the research arm of global consultancy Prophet.
Those intertwined strategies require business functions and IT to become equal participants in digital transformation, Akhtar said. In fact, research shows that companies most successful at transformation are more likely to have CEOs -- rather than CIOs -- lead the efforts, a trend that illustrates that IT cannot do transformation on its own.
Furthermore, technically literate and digitally fluent business teams collaborate more effectively with IT on initiatives, Akhtar said. They're also more likely to understand the potentials of technologies as well as the challenges, limits and security risks.
Ryan DouglasCOO, Digital River
"There's increased clarity on setting the agenda," he said.
The organization is then better able to identify how to use technology to deliver differentiating products and services, he said.
This dynamic, however, doesn't diminish the leadership and knowledge that CIOs and their teams bring to the table. In fact, it actually adds another responsibility to the IT department as CIOs and their teams must now cultivate this digital fluency among their business-side colleagues.
"IT's role is now to enfranchise the people, to provide support and the brain power, to democratize all this technology," said Ryan Douglas, who had served as CIO for Digital River, a provider of e-commerce, payments and marketing services, before becoming senior vice president and COO of the company in 2020.
Steps CIOs can use to boost the digital fluency quotient
CIOs are finding ways to boost the business-side understanding of technology and its potential -- without doing deep dives into programming language and long lessons on how the various technologies actually work. Here are some proven strategies to build digital fluency CIOs can use.
1. Educate on digital topics
Digital education is critical for any company looking to upskill its employees.
As part of its professional development program, EY offers a slew of technology-oriented badges that employees can earn.
EY workers have been gravitating to offerings on technical topics such as analytics, blockchain, data strategy and robotic process automation (RPA), Wong said. More than half of the participants have earned badges in technical fields.
"So we know they're becoming more digitally fluent," he said.
2. Create a common language
Although CIOs have long been advised to speak the language of business, some CIOs see the value in teaching business to learn how to talk tech.
There's a learning curve, though, Wong said.
"When I first came in [to EY], I used all the language of technology and innovation and product development, but the organization wasn't used to it," he said. "So we got a group of leaders together and created a consistent definition for words we use to talk about innovation and we wrote it down. It allowed us to talk to each other and understand each other better."
3. Leaning into vendors' efforts
Technology vendors increasingly seek out and pitch directly to business function leaders, rather than CIOs, which is one reason business teams must become more digitally fluent, Akhtar said.
CIOs shouldn't try to stop that from happening -- it's likely a losing battle anyway, he said. Instead, CIOs should join in those meetings. That way they can enlist the vendors in explaining and educating business leaders on the technologies and provide their own insights on the technologies' potentials and challenges.
"It's a real value-add when the CIO is there in those meetings as a true partner," Akhtar said.
Such meetings tend to be more informative and influential than written summaries and briefs on the same subject matter, he said.
4. Take advantage of teachable moments
Communication and other soft skills are key for CIOs, as these will help in building digital fluency throughout the organization.
When Douglas was working as a CIO, he said he tried to educate colleagues on the behind-the-scenes dynamics of the various technology initiatives. He took that approach, for example, when implementing multifactor authentication.
"We can help them understand what we're trying to achieve without having to explain how the technology works," he said. "That's where IT becomes a bridge to [the business] becoming more conversant in technology."
CIOs and their teams can find such opportunities to share their technical acumen if they seek them out.
5. Build a culture that rewards digital achievements
Building a workplace culture that gets workers interested and excited about innovation and technology can go a long way in building digital fluency throughout the organization.
For example, at EY, Global Delivery Services has an innovation awards program that brings together thousands of workers for hack-a-thons, and it has career events that explain and highlight the work done by EY technologists, Wong said. CIOs might see it as self-promotional, but putting a spotlight on the technology team and its work helps in the effort.
"[These] spread the innovation and technology culture through the organization," he said. "It helps people get excited about the technology."
6. Offer extra exposure to IT
In addition to digital education training available to employees worldwide, Schneider Electric started its Edison Program several years ago to further encourage more digital knowledge within its workforce, Dogra said. The program offers early-stage employees an opportunity to work on a job rotation through the IT department.
Employees can then carry what they've learned from that experience into their jobs throughout the company's other functional areas where they can boost the technical acumen of their teams, she said.
7. Remember that CIOs are technical advisors
Even as CIOs encourage more digital acumen among the business side of the organization, the CIO should remain an advisor on technical matters.
"The CIO needs to be a digital translator and cut through the technical jargon, so the business understands fact from fiction," Hamit said. "Increasingly when vendors come in and pitch their products and services, their presentations are very technical and often include a bunch of technical buzzwords that sound good on the surface. However, the business really depends on the CIO and IT team to help determine the technical legitimacy of what the products claim to be able to do, as well as the technical feasibility to implement the solution."
About the author
Mary K. Pratt is an award-winning freelance journalist with a focus on covering enterprise IT and cybersecurity management and strategy.