Learning to speak like a digital native

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We live in a digital economy, but do your leaders have the skills to make the most of it? Find out how HR can close the digital divide.

When Thomas Cook’s chief people officer Sandra Campopiano was informed by her CEO that she and the rest of the executive team would be learning to code in a day, her initial response was scepticism. “I was thinking to myself: ‘Why do I need to know how to code?’” she recalls. “I thought it was a ‘nice to know’, but didn’t see how it fitted into me leading the transformation of a business.”

But after taking part in the course, run by digital training company Decoded, Campopiano is happy to report that she couldn’t have been more wrong. “It helped me, as a business leader, see the tremendous opportunity in this space,” she says.

According to BBC research, about 21% of the UK adult population lacks basic digital skills, and government research has found a third of SMEs don’t even have a website. Even those who consider themselves digitally savvy can be intimidated by the language behind the screen. But with the internet contributing 8.3% of the UK economy, a higher proportion than other major G20 countries, leaders are fast running out of excuses for not understanding the digital world.

“As a senior business leader, you’re responsible for making sure your company is responding to the evolving needs of your customer,” says Ann Pickering, HR director of O2. “One of the toughest challenges can be showing senior leaders that digital skills are not just for the IT team. Technology is changing the way our customers live their lives and senior leaders cannot afford to sit back and get left behind.”

Thomas Cook is on a “digital journey”, so CEO Harriet Green sponsored the executive team to learn to code in a day as part of a wider cultural change programme. “It helped me understand how fast things are changing,” says Campopiano. “It was about inspiration and education for the senior leadership team, helping us understand the tools available in the digital environment.”

Kathryn Parsons, co-founder and CEO of Decoded, says she has seen an increasing number of HRDs sending their boards and ExCos on the courses. “Putting digital at the heart of what you do makes you better at your job and is key in thinking about how to take your company into the digital economy,” she says. “You need to catch up now.”

Jo Taylor, head of resourcing and talent management at Talk Talk, went on the course with her group HRD Nigel Sullivan. “I’ve always wanted to understand [digital], but it was like an alien language to me,” she says. “Both of us felt it was like a secret club, but it isn’t. It democratised it for us and enabled us to have deeper and more meaningful conversations with other functions. I was in the process of changing our careers website, so after doing the course, I was able to go to the agency and ask relevant questions.”

From an HR perspective, both Taylor and Campopiano say the training has helped them think about recruiting and retaining digital talent in a highly competitive market. “It’s helped me look differently at how we recruit our programmers and how we can help them work more closely with business issues,” says Campopiano.

“It gave us real confidence when talking about career paths,” adds Taylor. “And it made us look at our attraction strategy differently; we’ve seen it’s a freelance market.”

Parsons says that for employees, seeing the most senior team “evangelising about digital is powerful”. Jenny Peters, head of group communications at Thomas Cook, agrees. “The funnel of knowledge and hierarchy was turned upside down,” she says. “The most senior team are usually the ones pushing information down, but this flipped it. It sends a clear message that digital culture is coming from the top.”

“Using technology comes more naturally to young people than any others, and that includes many of the UK’s senior business leaders,” says Pickering. “Digital know-how has more of a ‘trickle-up’ than ‘trickle-down’ trajectory.”

To take advantage of this, O2 makes sure senior leaders and younger employees are given the chance to work together. “We’ve found not only does this benefit our young recruits, but it gives more established colleagues the opportunity to learn from some of the most digital savvy in the company,” she says. Similarly, Thomas Cook is exploring reverse mentoring programmes to help spread digital knowledge.

For HRDs who want to spread digital skills, Pickering’s first piece of advice is to persevere. “Start slowly and lead by example. Refusing to keep up, regardless of your sector, is to lose sight of this responsibility.”

Check back tomorrow to see if you can really learn to code in a day

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