Laurence Smith, global head of digital transformation at, argues that digital cannot be 'taught', it has to be 'experienced'. Here's what you can do.

Most organisations are struggling with how to build digital literacy within their organisations. I’ve written about various different solutions elsewhere and will add a future article on the 'Digital Mindset Playbook,' but here’s the real, underlying secret of how to help people ‘get digital.’

You cannot teach people digital. Nobody can tell you to 'get digital' - in fact talking too much about digital and tech can just make people defensive, anxious or switch off. There's a fine line where CEO cheerleading - if you’re not helping the rest of the organisation to understand why - can actually become counter productive.

The 'J Curve' of digital transformation

Reflecting on the digital mindset journey at DBS Bank where we put 500 of the high potential leaders through hackathons with startupsand cascaded a digital mindset campaign to all 22,000 employees, some significant insights came to me.

I’ve tried to capture this in the 'J Curve.'* This curve reflects the emotional journey senior leaders (and human beings in general), go through when faced with a challenging new reality. We all know about the instinctive flight or fight response to threats, but how do you get large groups of people beyond that, to actually engage with, and ultimately embrace, the new reality?

*Must give thanks to Jayesh Menon of Moet Hennessy for pushing my thinking to formalise this. Hence the ‘J’ curve in his honour!

Embracing the digital world

Firstly, most people are just too damn busy to care much about tomorrow. Business as usual (BAU) takes ~10-12 hours a day with no time left for reflection or consideration of tomorrow. But what  people don’t realise is that BAU is not what it used to be. In fact, today is the slowest BAU is ever going to be. What it takes to maintain the status quo of BAU itself is in fact changing, demands and expectations are increasing every day.

So even BAU is on it’s own little, gentle trend of increasing expectations. People without some appetite for learning and self development are getting left behind just a little bit more each day.

In fact, as far as their understanding of the digital world is concerned, most people are already falling behind.

Leaders in denial

If your leaders are in denial about the importance of digital, what do you do? Well, if it’s the CEO and he or she can’t be convinced otherwise, simply resign and move to a company that has a future.

But if the CEO has asked you to help transform the organisation you need to design a form of experience that gives the rest of the senior management team (SMT) a chance to come to the same realisation that the CEO has had - that digital is the future of the business - then you need a plan.

How to do this? There are various forms of leadership workshop or interventions that you can design, I’ve written about some of them here and here. But the fundamental truth of ‘teaching’ senior leaders something, is that you can’t. You cannot ‘teach’ - you can only let them ‘experience.’

Let them experience despair Frankly, you have to shock them out of their denial by showing them just how susceptible their industry is to ‘Uberfication’ or being ‘Amazon’ed.’ Generic examples are good, but you need to find examples from their specific industry that give them that ‘oh my god’ moment of visceral fear that 30% of their business could disappear and they never saw it coming.

You have to shock and awe them from denial to despair.

Build their confidence Metaphorically speaking, a bit like the way the Army or Marines break people down before they build them up again, you will have to do the same with your leaders. They need their world shaken a bit before they will look out with new eyes.

The road to capabilities

Let me share with you a couple of proven effective ways to do this depending on the scale of audience, time and budget available.

One is the ‘hackathon’ model similar to what we originally did at DBS back in 2014 and that has been copied extensively since. Here, after the ‘shock and awe’ session, you give some real business problems to solve, partner them with startups and run them through a design thinking, lean startup and agile development cycle to build a prototype of an app to solve that problem. Tremendously powerful as people actually get to be a startup for 72 or 48 hours. But expensive, time consuming and hard to scale - but ideal for the top of the house and your top talent.

At the other end of the scale in terms of time and budget, and can be done simultaneously with hundreds of leaders, is build an app in an afternoon. This is inspired by the Stanford Design School ‘Design Thinking Crash Course.’ Literally in 3 hours, people can conceptualise and build a working prototype of an App. When combined to bring to life one of the shock and awe technologies they learned about earlier, this can be simultaneously shocking and liberating in impact.

When working with the APAC HR leadership team of Moet Hennessy, each of them built quite an impressive prototype in the 3 hours session, which they all proudly demonstrated at the end.

Just for fun, I did a prototype that combined Amazon's floating fulfilment warehouse with SodaStreams Sparking Gold (which turns tap water into Sparkling wine equivalent to champagne at $5 a glass), with a drone service to deliver it directly to your picnic, garden party or BBQ! This concept raised quite a few eyebrows.

It’s not so hard. Anyone can do this.

Via the hackathon, or app prototyping, (another fun option is ‘build a chatbot’), executives who have never built an app or written a line of code before, suddenly realise two things. Firstly this stuff is not so hard - in fact it’s quite fun! And secondly, anyone can do this.

Suddenly they realise that in these days of infinite cloud computing, there are no ‘barriers to entry’ as such where using technology is concerned. There is only the willingness to experiment, to build, measure and learn, and to see what works - and an absolute obsession with the customer experience.

People usually walk out of this experience with an awareness that new technology, disrupters or non traditional competitors can turn the world upside down quicker than expected. But also a new appreciation for the opportunities offered by information technologies and a willingness to engage and learn more, in fact they are usually thirsty to learn more and keep learning.

The smart ones know that digital is not another ‘box to be ticked’ or ‘once and done’ but is in fact a new literacy. Indeed the most important new literacy for business survival and success.

Photos / provided