Digital transformation is very easy to achieve, jokes Axiz CTO Jacques Malherbe: “You can transform anything if you take a hammer to it. But it’s not efficient!”

It’s here where companies often get the digitisation of their operations completely wrong. But why does that happen? The issue, says Malherbe, is often not technology.

“When considering new technologies, one must assess how these technologies solve problems for customers, how it can be distributed, and whether the novel product or tech is distribution-ready or still in a direct modelling development phase. But if the focus is primarily on the technology and what it achieves, we are prone to overlook the role of people and their skills. And by skills, I don’t just mean the technical certifications to support the technology. I’m referring to the softer skills that help us understand technology and incorporate it into our thinking. If that doesn’t happen, transformation becomes a technology-first project and that will almost always fail.”

Unpacking the growing skills deficit

Malherbe specifically points to digital fluency as a concept to be taken more seriously. Fluency is a step beyond literacy. In language, literacy is the ability to understand and use a language with limited expressive capability. Fluency, on the other hand, provides a broader range of tools for confidence and flexibility.

“Fluency unlocks newfound knowledge, creativity and innovation that literacy cannot enable on its own,” Malherbe explains, noting that the concept of fluency can extend to the digital realm. And a lack of fluency often holds back people and companies.

According to Accenture, people with digital fluency can build on technological foundations for new creativity and ways of working. Digital fluency, it concludes, is the secret to facilitating successful workforce agility.

Malherbe agrees: “Those who lack digital fluency not only lack the vocabulary that eases efficient communication of topics but are blind to the steady wave of disruption and transformation that is moving through the world, where they fit in this new paradigm and what role they should play.”

This topic has implications beyond digital transformation. Many lament that digitisation will cost people their jobs, while others counter that innovation will create new job opportunities. But therein lies the rub: Workforces without digital fluency are unlikely to participate in those new opportunities. Digital fluency is not exclusive to technologists, and it impacts all types of roles. There is significant demand for digital skills in companies – especially relating to AI, robotic process automation and data science – that fall outside IT’s domain.

“These skills must be ‘marbled’ across organisational functions and business operations, and coupled with soft skills to successfully achieve transformation,” Malherbe adds.

Cultivating digital fluency

Worker skills are in a transition period. Every year, the average profile for a professional requires a more extensive scope for new skills. This skills gap even creates ambiguity for hiring. In a recent Talentneuron survey, 53% of respondents highlighted their inability to identify the necessary skill-sets required for positions as the primary impediment to workforce transformation. Such skill-sets are not restricted to technologists, but instead reflect the need for digital fluency across the board.

A person can attain three states of technology comprehension. The first is not literacy but basic digital proficiency: A person can handle digital interfaces such as working with a smartphone or using an application. This stage is often confused with digital literacy, so many companies view their people as digitally literate even though they are not skilled in much more than pushing buttons.

Digital literacy is the second stage: A combination of proficiency, critical thinking, communication skills and practical abilities in accessing, using and manipulating digital assets such as applications, data and multimedia. Vendors such as Microsoft make a lot of free resources available to help train people to this level of literacy, helping them understand what it means to be digital and think digitally.

Digital fluency exhibits the qualities of a digital citizen: Someone who displays the technical and social skills to make technology their own. Digital fluent individuals can self-select from different tools and collaborate confidently with other people. It doesn’t speak to their technical qualifications but rather their deserved technological confidence. For example, if we limit the description to spreadsheets and PowerPoint, many business people are very digitally fluent.

Unfortunately, cultivating digital fluency is not as simple as a few courses. It requires a cultural emphasis, Malherbe explains: “The first step is to help people improve from proficiency into literacy. That you can do with courses such as from Microsoft, and by looking closely at your company’s general digital skills needs. The second step is to encourage the right fluency habits. Are people critical about online information? Do they know how to communicate effectively via digital channels? Can they engage with each other through sufficient digital collaboration systems? Are you tailoring training based on user roles? And, critically, do you monitor how your employees use digital tools and then look for ways to improve those engagements?”

Companies are often blind to their workforces’ levels of digital fluency. Ninety percent of C-suite executives feel their employees’ needs are addressed with new technologies, according to a PricewaterhouseCoopers survey. Yet only half of employees agree. That gap is the missing link for digitising companies. If your technology investments aren’t reaching their potential, start paying more attention to digital fluency.