If we take a look at the multitude of digital consultants, “boot camps” and agency training programs initiated every year, we might assume the path to digital transformation bliss is paved by training. A January 2016 Forrester survey of top U.S. and European companies indicates 62% of them plan on increased spending for executive level digital training. Yet, despite the continued investment, a recent CMO survey conducted by Smart Insights indicates digital knowledge within their organizations has stayed flat — an uninspiring 4.5 on a 10-point scale — over the past four years. As a digital executive who has spent time on the brand and agency sides, I don’t believe the path to digital transformation is done through pumping dollars into training budgets.
Is Training Obsolete?
Over time, I realized in-house-developed lunch-’n’-learns, digital conferences and classroom-based digital training efforts weren’t moving the needle. Could it be the notion of training your way to digital competency is obsolete? It seemed to me that, once people left the training room, many didn’t seem to care to put the learned principles into practice. So, we changed our mindset to embrace identifying and accelerating the passionate, self-directed, life-long learners.
I’m sure this is an unpopular opinion with some, but relying on digital experts to “educate the traditionalists” has never seemed logical to me. The digital strategy and creatives that typically drive thought leadership and digital transformation weren’t taught in a classroom; they were dedicated students of the industry. They taught themselves, collaborated voraciously, and practiced like mad to get to the upper echelon of their digital careers. While others attended conferences like SXSW expecting to become digital ninjas in a week, our top experts were building prototypes, exchanging ideas and studying on their own to keep pace. And, they wore as a badge of honor the fact they never attended the now over-hyped conference.
My belief is if people aren’t learning to fish for themselves, they are risking “career death.” Sadly, we all know people who fell victim to the digital movement by not working hard on their own to increase their knowledge.
Four years ago, we stopped almost all traditional digital training methods including sending people to SXSW and others like it. Rather, we instituted a framework for agency employees to teach themselves what we called the Digital Black Belt program. The program rewarded proactive self-learners, and, truthfully, didn’t do a whole lot for those who sat idly on the sidelines.
The program, for all intents and purposes, was successful. We were invited to speak at an industry association conference about the groundbreaking program. It helped with recruiting and we raised the digital acumen to a higher level than we could have with more traditional training. This year however, as we were set to enter the fourth year of the program, we decided to dissolve it. The pace of change, and the specialization of digital, caused even this novel approach to stop working.
So, what do you do when you’ve tried traditional and non-traditional training? Here’s our recommendation:
1. Establish programs that encourage doing vs. ineffective training programs. That’s truly the only way to learn.
2. Digital is a mindset. All new hires need to have this. Period.
3. Soft skills and desire are more important than technical skills in predicting success. All the certifications in the world don’t matter if there’s no personal passion and initiative.
4. Invest in specialized training. But only for those who have demonstrated self-directed learning as a way of life. The benefits here will be exponential.