Key takeaways

  • Digital natives are employed to bring digital skills to organisations, but the notion that younger people are more digitally skilled doesn’t stand up. 
  • Digitally upskilling employees can foster grassroots innovation and a culture where transformation is inevitable.
  • PwC Australia’s ‘Digital Accelerator’ program turns passionate people into advocates for technological change, and the benefits are immense.

Digital transformation comes in many guises. It can be imposed from outside through industry disruption. It can also be the result of business model change or altering ways of working. It can be a conscious strategic step, cascaded through an organisation from the top down. Equally, it can come from below.

Tech innovation often bubbles up from the bottom echelons of organisations. Frontline employees are intimately aware of the technological inefficiencies and blockers to growth — afterall, they are likely to face them in their daily work. They are also often younger than those at the top, and Millennials and Gen Z, who grew up immersed in technology, are often seen as keys to digital innovation.

But research (and reality) has proved youth does not necessarily make you a technological genius. Should businesses then give up on the idea of digitally-literate youthful unicorns who will effect change? The ‘Digital Accelerator’ program we run at PwC Australia proves why doing so would be a mistake, and why other businesses should invest in digital gurus, too.

Digital natives and digital immigrants

The term ‘digital native’ was coined in 2001 by thought leader Marc Prensky who argued in an educational context that younger generations could be considered ‘native speakers’ of the digital language of computers, video games and the Internet.”1

This background, he proposed, meant that younger students process information differently, having been socialised to a digital language that puts technology first. Their teachers, on the other hand, were digital immigrants, who, like those learning a second language, had to make a conscious effort to ‘think digital’.

That thinking has since permeated educational curriculums and organisational hiring strategies alike, often to deleterious effect.2 Prensky himself has since clarified that his idea was more metaphorical than prescriptive, but the idea remains stubborn. The premise is too simplistic,3 and studies have shown that younger generations are not digital savants simply by virtue of their age.4

It’s understandably tempting to believe that hiring young people will inject digital thinking, positive disruption and competitive innovation into a business. Especially so in the midst of the war on talent and struggle for key technical skills. But crucially, organisations needn’t give up on the idea altogether. Because as it turns out, digital natives may not be born but they can be made.

Digital acceleration in the 21st century

For several years we at PwC have instituted digital upskilling programs, with a Digital Fitness L&D app, and Digital Academy learning intensive, giving employees an opportunity to develop their understanding of digital transformation and data analytics.

Late in 2019, we took things further, launching the ‘Digital Accelerator’ program, aiming to build a community of digital experts that would lead to digital solution efficiencies both within the organisation and for clients. In the program participants undertake learning in areas such as data automation, workflows, analysis and visualisation, robotic process automation and machine learning.

It has been a challenging and rewarding program. It’s also an exceptional opportunity for employees to positively disrupt the business, lead and drive change, and develop the digital and leadership skills that will help shake things up. The Accelerators, it should be noted, are people with a digital mindset rather than digital expertise. They have curiosity, energy and a passion, and are ready to help and influence others to reimagine the possible, but they are not necessarily people you would think of as ‘techy’.

That was on purpose. Our employee-base has many digital experts, from those working in automation, machine learning, blockchain, digital twin, cyber and virtual reality, all the way to hardcore coders. The program was not started to build these areas, but to grow a community of like-minded people who experienced first-hand the value of upskilling in an area that was a challenge to them, driving a digital culture and innovation mentality at a grassroots level.

After a training intensive, Accelerators return to their normal roles, but they use their new skills to reimagine how they deliver their work — both internally and externally — digitalising delivery and upskilling their own teams. Additionally, they allocate 20 percent of their time to contributing back to the Accelerator community.

The benefits of employee innovation

The tech world has long seen the value in motivating employees to innovate. Famously, Google’s ‘20 Percent Time,’ led directly to some of its most profitable assets, such as Gmail, AdSense and Google Maps.5 3M’s 15 percent time reportedly resulted in Post-It Notes.6 Atlassian also offers innovation time, from specifically set aside days and weeks, to structured brainstorming exercises to foster a culture innovation.7

There is clearly a benefit in allowing employees time to put ideas into action. From Twitter and Twitch, to Slack and Instagram, there are many examples of employee or company side projects that have become technologies in their own right at the forefront of innovation.8 The Digital Accelerator program has proven similarly productive.

Two of the program’s alumni helped a major telecommunications company process and gain insight from over 60,000 existing text records, allowing them to explore their culture and address areas of focus without the need to spend time updating methods of subpar data-collection.

A finance transformation project in another company required analysis that would normally take weeks to produce in static slides and spreadsheets. Instead, one of the program’s Accelerators was able to provide the business with activity analysis completed in a day. Not only did this save time, but with the data visualisation skills to present the findings in an interactive dashboard, it changed the entire conversation. Business leaders were able to immerse themselves in the data and truly understand its relevance and find the solutions to their challenges.

The people play

As well as benefits to business, in time, understanding, cost-savings and the ability to compete, upskilling provides personal value to participants.

The process has been empowering, particularly in allowing Accelerators to develop their digital mindset, to think in a way that they previously hadn’t. Connor Levien, a manager from our risk consulting area, says that the program has allowed him to bring “an experience focused mindset to reframe problems and address root causes, rather than simply digitising problems.”

Krasni Shrivastava, a senior associate from the management consulting area, agrees “When coming across problems, I didn’t previously have the knowledge or expertise to think digital, which resulted in being limited to non-digital solutions. The digital accelerator program ensured that I had that knowledge — and the possibilities that they unlock.”

And Tim Cumming speaks of the way the program has enabled his development as a senior associate in consulting. “Once I embraced the mindset of trying digital tools first, and only using static tools if I failed, my growth accelerated. I now can’t imagine tackling client problems without digital tools. The program has enabled me to innovate and lead, bringing others along on the journey.”

Successful innovation programs

Our Digital Accelerator program continues to grow, and its benefits show that organisations can find value in enabling digital passions among employees. With the right training, supportive leadership and a commitment to the time and resources involved, success will come in many different, unexpected and gratifying forms.

The community is fundamentally changing how we think about, organise and deliver work, but it isn’t an orderly transition to an imagined end goal. It’s really about creating the skills, culture and community — our DNA — to continually transform and reimagine work and value.

 

Justin Homer

Contributor

Justin Homer

Justin Homer is a partner in PwC Australia’s The Difference.

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