2.7 billion deskless workers keep the global economy running. Driven by competitive pressures and today’s workforce realities, organizations are increasingly investing in digital transformation initiatives for their front-line workforces.

For front-line professionals such as field service technicians, delivery drivers, warehouse workers and health care professionals, digital technology is as important to their work as the other tools of their trade. In fact, 75% of frontline workers say that they spend most of their day using technology.

Tech on the Front-line: A Broken Promise

The promise of digital transformation efforts is being met by a harsh reality: Many front-line and deskless workers can become overwhelmed by new technologies, resulting in “change whiplash” that undermines adoption. In fact, 80% of human resources (HR) and information technology (IT) leaders report that they struggle with worker adoption of new technology. Poor adoption is perhaps the most significant threat to the success of digital initiatives and any promised return on investment.

What are organizations doing to help front-line workers cross the digital divide? Seemingly not enough: According to a Microsoft survey of frontline workers, 55% say that they receive no formal training on how to use their technology. It’s shocking: three-quarters of front-line workers need to use technology to get their job done, yet less than half receive even a minimal amount of formal systems training.

To make matters worse, the same Microsoft survey reported that 45% of frontline workers fear losing their jobs if they don’t adapt to their technology. With employee turnover rates at historical highs — 37% of deskless workers are considering leaving their job in the next six months  —organizations who ignore the need to support their front-line employee’s tech learning needs run the risk of making a bad situation even worse.

What Makes Front-line Tech Adoption a Unique Challenge

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking everyone is like us — they learn the same way; they use the same tools and technology. But front-line workers have different needs than so-called “knowledge workers.” They work in very different environments (remote and often with limited connectivity). They use different applications on varying device types (often mobile). The way they work is exceedingly different (tightly scheduled and organized).

Some other common factors that make systems training and tech adoption a unique challenge for the front-line:

  • Business workflows and technology are complex, and increasingly more difficult to learn, remember and master.
  • High turnover creates a constant stream of new hires, with tech training being only one part of the entire onboarding process.
  • A distributed workforce that makes communication and training delivery complex.
  • Overreliance on front-line supervisors to deliver training creates an ad hoc approach and introduces inconsistency.
  • Frequent software and technology changes.

Finally, there’s the classic problem of “When everyone is responsible, no one is responsible.” In many organizations, it’s unclear who exactly has responsibility for tech and systems training. Is it IT’s responsibility since they are tasked with implementing technology? If we consider it another part of the learning curriculum, shouldn’t it fall under L&D?  Since technology is so embedded in business processes, shouldn’t business operations own it? If it’s a new technology, wouldn’t it be in the purview of organizational change management? In theory, all functions need to be coordinated to make it happen, with one function taking ownership for successful tech adoption. In reality, it often falls through the cracks.

How to Make Frontline Tech Adoption Happen

To prevent digital transformation from becoming digital disruption, corporate leaders, including IT, operations, learning and development (L&D) and change management, need a new approach for managing technology change and driving adoption. Follow these best practices to get started.

  1. Build empathy for the front-line. This is listed first for a reason; it is the most important of all. Organizations must have a culture that truly understands the needs, motivations and struggles of their front-line workforce.
  2. Get out into the field. Don’t design solutions from the “boardroom.” Organizations too often underestimate the unique challenges associated with designing, deploying, and learning technology for frontline workforces. Putting boots on the ground and compiling reliable feedback before creating change is crucial for long-term adoption.
  3. Start the process early. Training is too often an afterthought when it comes to digital transformation projects. Systems and technology training should be prioritized as part of a holistic change management approach.
  4. Meet frontline workers where they are. Organizations must create experiences that are optimized for the unique learning needs and environment of the front-line. This will likely require a different approach to curriculum development, content creation, and learning delivery: think microlearning, mobile-centric and in the flow of work.
  5. Take a lifecycle approach to learning and support. Organizations can no longer take a “one-and-done” approach to systems and tech training. New hire onboarding, software updates, support in the moment of need, and reinforcement to fix common mistakes all require an ongoing cycle of systems training.

Front-line technology adoption doesn’t have to be a problem – but it requires a new approach. One that demands organizations take a more strategic view of systems training and tech learning. Operations leaders need to prioritize technology training to maximize the effectiveness of their workforce. IT business partners must learn empathy for front-line employees who may not have a high degree of comfort with technology. L&D teams need to identify the unique needs of their front-line learners, and potentially make new investments in learning technologies that specifically address those needs. In doing so, they will set their front-line workers up for success … no matter what digital disruptions lie ahead.