Organizations today are faced with a disruption that is nothing short of historic. Digital technologies have made their way into organizations and now impact every facet of organizational behavior, both externally and internally. And the digital transformation is just beginning: By 2018, 50 percent of all business process jobs will disappear, and digital jobs will increase by 500 percent.

Yet despite the omnipresence of digital technologies in organizations today, statistics reveal that the people working in them are unprepared:

  • Nearly 40 percent of workers in the European Union lack some critical digital skills, and 14 percent have none whatsoever.
  • In the U.S., an estimated 60 million people are shut out of jobs because of a lack of digital skills, and nearly 20 percent of American adults do not use the Internet at home, work or school or by mobile device.
  • In the U.K., six million citizens have never used the Internet, and 9.5 million have inadequate digital skills.

In light of these skills gaps, organizations have no choice but to rethink the way they develop their people and their talent in order to stay afloat in this tidal wave of change.


The modern digital transformation can easily be compared to the Industrial Revolution. Like the innovations of that era, digital technologies have afforded organizations opportunities to boost performance and efficiency that even a few years ago would have been unthinkable.

For example, geographically dispersed teams can now collaborate and innovate in real time, and organizations can analyze big data to identify which talent is at risk of leaving. Despite these opportunities, organizations are unsure how to embrace this change and unleash the full potential digital technologies offer.

Perhaps the biggest impact of the digital transformation affects the people who make up organizations. Like the Industrial Revolution, the digital disruption has reached the societal level, causing anxiety, fear and heightened uncertainty and insecurity regarding the future.

In 1675, when machine looms began to replace handloom weaving, a three-day riot broke out in England, during which groups of weavers destroyed the machines that had begun to replace their jobs. While these machines presented inestimable advantages for performance and efficiency, the people who lived at that time had either to adapt to this change or risk being left jobless.

As history illustrates, technological progress will prevail. Therefore, rather than resisting the digital transformation, people and organizations must prepare immediately and strategically for a skillset that will perpetually change and evolve.


To master perpetual change, both people and organizations must consider learning and development as a never-ending cycle of continuous improvement. Contrary to even a decade ago, a college degree is no longer sufficient to develop the skills needed to build a lifelong career.

The 21st-century workplace is built on changing skills that require lifelong learning and development; failure to adapt will result in obsolescence. Individuals who stop learning endanger their careers. More worrying still, what is true for people is also true for businesses: Companies that are unready or unwilling to become learning organizations will not survive in the era of digital transformation.

To complicate matters, the way people learn has also been greatly impacted by digital technologies. Learning today is less and less about reserving an hour of training than about consuming short bursts of content on the go. Traditional didactic models are incompatible with new working habits: People simply cannot cut themselves off and concentrate for long periods of time.

Learning is now happening on subway platforms, on planes and even in taxis; as a result, contemporary learners expect learning experiences to be quick, engaging and immediately useful. In addition, organizations can no longer adopt only a top-down approach when it comes to development. Instead, they need to focus more on empowering their staff to develop themselves and each other by providing them with the tools, framework and autonomy to do so.


Acquiring a solid range of digital skills is of utmost importance for people and organizations. Many companies, in an effort to join the race toward digital transformation, have chosen to train their staff members to use software. While developing such technical skills is a laudable decision, teaching a staff member which button to push to create a bar chart or how to electronically sign a document is just not enough.

If an organization’s goal is to make its employees digitally literate, simply training them to operate different types of software only addresses part of the problem. Put simply, it is as if these organizations were giving their staff one shoe to wear instead of two. Instead, the skillset employees need in order to survive the digital transformation requires a more holistic approach to create sustainable value.

Academic research generally defines digital literacy as the interdependence of three or more interdisciplinary skill subsets that must work in harmony. Of particular importance, researchers Mark Warschauer and Tina Matuchniak identify these interdisciplinary skillsets as (1) information, media and technology skills; (2) learning and innovation skills; and (3) life and career skills.

This categorization further insists that digital literacy is multi-faceted and not simply the mastery of computer or technology skills. In “Digital Literacy: A Conceptual Framework for Survival Skills in the Digital Era,” researcher Yoram Eshet-Alkalai notably underscores this point, saying, “Digital literacy involves more than the mere ability to use software or operate a digital device; it includes a large variety of complex cognitive, motor, sociological and emotional skills, which users need in order to function effectively in digital environments.”


When designing a corporate development strategy to achieve digital literacy, managers should focus on five “C’s,” or five key characteristics. These characteristics can be illustrated using the example of learning to drive a car, which, like digital literacy, involves three types of skills: technical (i.e., igniting the engine), functional (i.e., analyzing traffic density) and behavioral (i.e., adjusting speed, making turns).

The Five C’s:

1. Complementary

A development program should target skills that are complementary, in the sense that technical skills, functional skills and behavioral skills work together. The abstract, “The Search for Competence in the 21st Century,” notes that learning strategies must focus on “how subjects are interconnected.” Because these skills are interdependent, they should be learned and acquired simultaneously.

2. Concurrent

According to Leah Taylor and Jim Parsons in their journal article, “Improving Student Engagement,” like learning to drive, digital skillsets should be addressed concurrently, “all infused into core content as both process and outcome.”

3. Contextualized

The skillsets underpinning digital literacy depend on and change according to the specific context in which they are used.

Consider a videoconference: The interactions occurring in a small group of four people who know each other would be very different from those involving 12 strangers. While the relevant technical skills may be the same in both settings (i.e., mastery of the relevant software to hold a videoconference), the functional and behavioral skills required would certainly be different. The way a videoconference is organized and managed depends on several specific parameters (number of people, type of interaction, physical situation, etc.), and, therefore, the targeted skillsets should be contextualized.

Digital literacy is the delicate interplay and mastery of all these skill groups in a variety of contexts, not only one. Like driving a car, it is not by mastering the technical, functional and behavioral skills in one context that means the driver is skilled; instead, it is by mastering the ensemble of all these skills in various environments that makes a good driver.

4. Collaboration

When designing a development strategy, it is essential to consider the changing nature of learner expectations to optimize engagement based on collaboration. John Seely Brown describes “a shift between using technology to support the individual to using technology to support relationships between individuals. With that shift, we will discover new tools and social protocols that help us help each other, which is the very essence of social learning.”

Taylor and Parsons also suggest, “We need to change how we teach as well as what we teach if we are to engage learners – moving from didactic to constructivist pedagogy. Constructivist instruction requires strong respectful relationships and safe learning environments, especially as teacher-student relationships shift from expert-disciple towards peer-based collaborative learning.”

5. Continuous

Digital tools come and go quickly; they evolve and incorporate new features regularly (think about the number of versions of Microsoft Office released in the past decade). If a training program is intended to bridge this digital skills gap sustainably, learning cannot be a one-time affair. Training that targets digital literacy must be ongoing and continuously evolving.

The new paradigm for learning and development in the 21st century is very different from past models in the sense that organizations must not only address what people learn but also how they learn. It is by designing sound strategies that integrate changing needs in both content and delivery that we can achieve true digital transformation.