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Tracey Stern

How Business Leaders Are Falling Through The Digital Skills Gap

11 January 2017, Tracey Stern

Leadership skills gap

A generation of marketers aren’t fit to lead their brands because they don’t have the necessary digital knowledge.

That was the headline-grabbing claim made by Unilever chief marketing and communications officer Keith Weed at the Festival of Marketing in late 2016.

And he’s absolutely right. If anything, he’s understated the problem.

Weed’s critique was aimed at his client-side peers. But in our experience, it’s not unusual for agency leadership to have significant digital knowledge deficits too

As one leading agency contact recently admitted to us: “We have blind spots in the more data/tech side of digital, which worryingly I see as our biggest opportunity for growth.”

And the problem is exacerbated by the senior team’s distance from the front line.  “The leadership feel they know ‘what good looks like’ but are far removed from the day-to-day activation and implementation of digital media.”

His agency is about to embark on an agency-wide digital training schedule, but many leaders on both agency and client-side have yet to take the first step – admitting there is a problem to be addressed.

This reticence to metaphorically ‘hold their hands up’ is entirely understandable – many feel that admitting gaps in their knowledge will undermine their credibility amongst their peer group and employees.  But this isn’t a problem suffered by an isolated few – it’s endemic across the sector.

The “Lost Generation”

Keith Weed has identified the ‘lost generation’ as “people in their late 30s and early 40s who don’t yet have grown up children who are digital natives and weren’t digital natives themselves.”  That’s hardly the fault of those involved.  And even those who are digital natives, or who are the parents of digital natives, aren’t immune to yawning chasms in their knowledge.

Your 20-something employees may be glued to their phones as they glide seamlessly from Instagram to SnapChat to checking out the latest offerings from their favourite YouTube personalities, but are they versed in Google’s latest algorithmic update?  Or the full range of business development opportunities presented by channels such as LinkedIn? Or the potential now offered by programmatic advertising?

To expect everyone to be completely ‘tooled up’ for the complexities of marketing in the digital age is unrealistic – the subject is too vast and moving too rapidly.  According to Matthew Barwell at Britvic, the key is having the right attitude:  “The pace of digital disruption and change mean that no marketer can possibly understand all of the nuances of every digital channel available. What is important is that [marketers] stay curious and knowledgeable about how digital is changing the world our consumers and our customers live in, and that they are knowledgeable enough to ask the right questions.’

So what do senior marketers become, as Barwell states, ‘knowledgeable enough to ask the right questions?’

Bridging the knowledge gap

Well, firstly, they need to invest the time to solve the problem, and the best initial investment of that time is in training.

Trying to build up limited knowledge of a subject using an ad-hoc collection of agency contacts, trade publications and ‘digitally native’ colleagues is like trying to build a house by starting with the first floor. You need a solid foundation to build on.

Organisations like Weed’s Unilever can offer their own training – which in their case consists of mandatory e-modules and workshops that start with ‘basics’ programmes on search, programmatic and websites.

But training is only part of the solution. Once the foundations are built, leaders need to ensure they have strategies in place to keep on top of the rapidly changing digital world.

Creating a best-practice guide

If there’s one source to listen to for advice on this matter it’s Microsoft, an organisation at the forefront of helping businesses and individuals achieve more through digital – whether that’s through cloud technologies or software products such as Office and Skype.

Take their innovative approach to building competence and confidence in their team’s use of social media to promote the business. As Microsoft UK’s Marketing Director, Paul Davies, explains: “We use a tool, Sociabble, which aggregates all our official social media messaging into one feed. Then staff can choose what they want to re-post themselves from their own accounts. This keeps it ‘safe’ as staff can simply re-post the original message to keep us all on-brand.”

The whole process is made fun and engaging with an additional tier of gamification – the circulation of a monthly league table, where points are awarded for likes, shares and tweets.

Another plank of Microsoft’s continuous digital learning culture is to use the digital natives in the organisation to share best practice in emerging platforms such as Snapchat. It’s Paul’s belief that business leaders have to acknowledge that the nature of knowledge transfer has changed: “Marketing knowledge used to be exclusively passed down from the more senior and experienced, but we now look to our digital natives to teach the rest of us too.”

Finally, there has to be a personal commitment to increasing digital knowledge, and that means carving out some time in that crammed diary, As Paul explains:  “I see it as an investment to stay current, keep my knowledge up to date, and to remain at the cusp of the changes we see. It’s so important for marketers to take this seriously and invest in themselves. It’s a case of learn, or be left behind. Personally, I ensure I spend time on LinkedIn every day. I find it a useful aggregator of news, opinion and insight that keeps me current.”

Identifying a problem is the first step

It’s so easy to perceive a gap in your digital knowledge as a threat – something which, if exposed, could lower your respect amongst your peers and even undermine your career.

But an admission of a blind spot is no admission of weakness. The digital world is moving so fast that all but the most committed of digital mavens are going to have them.

And addressing them opens up new opportunities – for self-improvement, and for improvement in the performance of your company by seizing opportunities that you haven’t fully realised or been properly equipped to exploit.

Keith Weed has done the marketing community a favour by calling out the problem. It’s now up to us all to do something about it.

For more information about Emarketeers’ Digital Leaders Programme, contact Tracey Stern or call 020 3925 2829.