This Year’s Most Potent Digital Skill: Galvanizing Top Management


Joe McKendrick, Contributor

December 31, 2014

One may be forgiven for assuming that success in digital ventures the coming years will be based on one’s ability to leverage the latest and greatest technology and apply it all to any and all business situations. But that’s only part of the story.

Successfully deploying and managing a digital management program is a great skill. There are many areas of knowledge required, from creating online channels to measuring customer sentiment to understanding enterprise IT architecture. However, something else is needed to help you reach your destination. It’s imperative to build a repertoire in digital, but just as important to understand the fundamental business skills that will guide efforts in a profitable direction.

To date, there’s been a gap between digital advancement and overall business strategy. Often, digital efforts are launched and managed separately, with little connection to the overall business. Sometimes, top executives will only give digital development a passing glance. As Oliver Bossert, Jürgen Laartz, and Tor Jakob Ramsøy, all with McKinsey, put it in a recent report, “all too often, the digital dialogue never becomes sufficiently strategic to galvanize top management.”

How can digital advocates galvanize top management, then? McKinsey may have provided an answer to this question in an earlier analysis of the roles and tasks associated with moving to the digital realm. The report’s authors state that organizations seeking to move deeper into digital have three challenges: finding leaders who think digital; managing digital expectations; and prioritizing talent. Indeed, above all else, senior management interest or desire to change ranks above all else as the factor most likely to determine the success or failure of a digital initiative, the McKinsey survey found. Someone needs to show organizations how digital initiatives will deliver, and deliver big.

“Leadership is the most decisive factor for a digital program’s success or failure,” observe ‘s Brad Brown, Johnson Sikes, and Paul Willmott, all with McKinsey. “Increasing C-level involvement is a positive sign, and the creation of a CDO role seems to be a leading indicator for increasing the speed of advancement. These developments must continue if companies are to meet their high aspirations for digital.” In addition, it’s crucial to manage expectations. “Just as important as finding the right leader is setting the right agenda and maintaining an aspirational vision without straying into overexuberance for digital. Leaders will have to walk this line carefully, given executives’ reports of organizational, technical, and cultural challenges.”

Success in the emerging digital realm, then, requires a special blend of business and technology skills. On one hand, managers and professionals need to be able to provide the guidance and vision necessary for the business to make the transition to digital enterprise — making the right steps, and not just throwing technology into the organization. At the same time, digital proponents need to have an understanding of the best technology resources available –such as cloud services and APIs — and how they fit into the business.

The New York Time’s Steve Lohr recently published an article exploring the digital skills business schools need to be emphasizing to prepare students for this new world, and a common theme he unearthed in his interviews is “balance” — though this was open to interpretation. In general, digital success requires a hybrid set of both business and technology skills.

The manager or executive who can demonstrate that he or she can strike this balance and provide such guidance will find him or herself in great demand. As McKinsey observes, there is also a dearth of talent available to oversee the move to the digital world.  “Technical, functional, and business skills are all critical for digital programs. We have seen some companies begin emulating the high-tech practice of ‘acqui-hiring’ (that is, acquiring small companies largely for their employees rather than their products). But finding and hiring talent is only part of the solution; no matter where the talent comes from, development and retention are equally important in a sellers’ market.”

A blending of technology and business skills dominated LinkedIn’s list of the 25 hottest skills that got people hired in 2014, culled from its database of 330 million members.  Statistical analysis, SEO/SEM marketing, business intelligence, and marketing campaign management were leading skill areas.

This converges with the leading activities organizations are undertaking — here are the leading activities associated with successful digital initiatives to date, as found in McKinsey’s report. Note the mix of marketing, operational and IT activities that have come to the fore:

  • Positioning and branding material consistently across online and offline channels (36 percent).
  • Using advanced customer targeting to advertise (30 percent).
  • Employing big data to improve budgeting, forecasting, or planning processes. (46 percent).
  • Using big data to improve performance management and transparency in internal operations. (39 percent).

The need for a blended skillsets to address the business potential of digital — and to sell this to top management — will be a key challenge in the year ahead.

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