Building digital fluency in the C-suite and beyond

Building digital fluency in the C-suite and beyond

CIOs share how they are developing digital and data fluency across their organisations to drive better buy-in, more IT funding, and new business opportunities.

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When it comes to fostering digital literacy in the C-suite, Michael Seals literally wrote the book. At his company, anyway. In tandem with his job as chief digital officer and senior vice president of strategy at Hussman, Seals got a Ph.D. in business administration and wrote his dissertation on digital acuity and intelligence in “incumbent companies.”

Hussman, which manufactures and services commercial refrigeration equipment for food retailers globally, is a 117-year-old company. But today even companies that manufacture physical goods have to have a digital-savvy C-suite, Seals says.

“Digital technology is infiltrating our business in ways we never thought of ourselves,’’ he says. “While it won’t displace physical things, it can disrupt the customer value proposition. So it is imperative the C-suite have digital literacy” not only to protect and enhance the customer value proposition but to understand new technologies and how they can be applied in their business.

Research has shown that companies with strong digital acuity outperform the field, so it’s a strategic and business imperative, Seals adds. Yet, while there is “a high level of awareness in legacy companies on the need to do this,’’ there is “a low level of awareness on how to do it.”

More frequently, IT leaders are seeing the value of educating their peers and stakeholders as a win-win for increasing buy-in and budget for digital initiatives. Their tactics range from formal presentations, customised classes, hands-on demonstrations, and immersive experiences, to informal, periodic conversations.

The payoff can be significant. “We get consistent investment year over year,’’ says Yao Morin, CTO of global commercial estate company JLL. Leadership “puts their money where their mouth is.” Additionally, when her group is looking to do an innovative project, “it’s much easier to justify and trust IT … and be allowed to fail.”

Translating the CEO’s strategy

Another legacy organisation, 105-year-old The Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America (TIAA), has “a specific focus on elevating data and digital fluency” across the organisation, says Sastry Durvasula, CIO and client services officer.

Digital-first and data/AI are the two key pillars of TIAA’s business strategy and a core part of its broad tech transformation. Education starts with the executive committee and executive operating council, which includes senior leaders from the businesses and corporate functions, Durvasula says.

He initiated the creation of a comprehensive operating model. “This involved translating the CEO’s strategy into a focused technology and client services strategy, which then led to the formation of dedicated business-facing CIOs for each of our core businesses,” Durvasula says.

It has also meant taking a concerted approach to achieve the objective of continued learning for TIAA’s leaders and associates globally on digital, data, AI, and emerging technologies.

“Our approach aligns with the ongoing revolution of upskilling and reskilling in the tech industry, spurred by the changes brought about by the pandemic,” he says. This “positions us to adapt effectively to the shifting business landscape, making the most of digital transformation and remote work arrangements.”

Durvasula’s literacy approach encompasses several initiatives, such as T3 (TIAA Tech Tomorrow), a series of events tailored for various levels of the organisation to deepen the understanding of emerging tech, data, AI, digital, and the new art of the possible, he says.

T3 events include discussions with leading industry experts, customised master classes, hands-on demonstrations, and immersive experiences. Those sessions have also been integrated into various learning events for the leadership.

Another is Guild Network, a program designed to foster continuous learning and development through communities of practice, Durvasula says. There are seven guilds, which include digital tech, data, AI, and emerging tech areas, and this enables all global associates at different levels to upskill and reskill in a collaborative learning setup.

Reverse mentoring is another initiative that utilises early associates — who are digital natives — to teach leaders about digital literacy, he notes.

“This journey towards digital fluency is not a one-time effort; it’s an ongoing commitment,’’ Durvasula says. “We’re investing a significant amount of time, resources, and budget to ensure we remain competitive in the digital age.”

An AI centre of excellence

With generative AI front and centre right now, Fariha Rizwan knows time is of the essence and his team needs buy-in and budgets for infrastructure and control of resources to manage the data science lifecycle. Rizwan, CIO of Z2C Ltd., a Karachi, Pakistan-based venture firm that accelerates growth for marketing technology (martech) startups, decided that developing an AI centre of excellence model would be “a critical step in building digital literacy in the organisation.”

“ChatGPT is a massive step forward for business awareness,’’ he says. “Delivering AI products will take more than technology.”

As Rizwan sees it, CoEs solve five problems: They promote data and model literacy across the business; data science workflows get standardised; innovation initiatives are better supported and prioritised; AI can scale to handle more use cases; and the total cost of AI initiatives is reduced.

The CoE is specifically targeted at educating Z2C’s C-suite and the senior leadership of the various martech ventures in their portfolio of companies in the MENAP region. “Literacy exercises and educational sessions rotate between feature launches, demonstrating the clear link between our team and building an MVP,” Rizwan says.

Every time a new feature is shipped or a new technology product is launched, the AI CoE team holds a town hall session for the entire company. The principal stakeholder for Rizwan’s budget approvals is the CFO, who gets buy-in from the CSO and the chairman for the strategy behind business goals attached to products, he says.

Additionally, members of the C-suite participate in monthly sprint sessions detailing the features shipped and the UX analytics that measure feature acceptance, while reinforcing the basic data science tenets and emphasis on value creation, he says. They also “drive home the role of the AI CoE, the ROI of standardising data science workflows, the ROI of when innovation initiatives are better supported and prioritised, and the ROI of utilising AI to scale apps/products so they can scale to handle more use cases,’’ Rizwan says.

These exercises repeatedly reinforce the connection between the CFO’s team and value creation to signal the role IT plays in the overall business strategy, he adds.

Developing a common language and vocabulary

Like Z2C, Aflac is planning to offer informational sessions on ChatGPT as well as on the company’s cloud journey for some of the board committees — at their request. The goal is “to gain an understanding of how they’re being leveraged inside our company … as well as gaining an understanding of any risks and opportunities we need to be looking out for,” says Shelia Anderson, CIO of Aflac US.

‘Tech literacy is important because it helps to bridge the gap between business and technology,’’ she says. “It helps to bring a shared understanding of technology, the drivers behind technology … and also helps to explain the investment in technology and the associated value.”

Another educational approach that works well is implementing a core curriculum around specific tech disciplines. Anderson hasn’t begun offering that yet as she has only been with the company for about a year but says past experiences have shown her that focus sessions are very successful.

They include “everything from what is technical debt, to a leverage of newer and emerging technologies to ChatGPT to transformation programs inside of technology,’’ she says. “It takes more time to do them, but I find them [to be] a much more rapid approach to get that full immersion with business and technology.”

Those sessions are usually jointly attended and facilitated largely by IT, Anderson says.

The greatest issue in trying to get a program going is “the challenge of time,” because all the business leaders are very busy, she notes. Anderson believes, though, that once they see the value of digital literacy, it will be “very well received.”

The primary benefits of digital literacy efforts are to build trust and relationships and get to a common language and shared vocabulary. Another is “much more around a shared understanding of what prioritisation means in the business; why it’s important to prioritise certain initiatives over others, and ultimately, that does tie into budget,” Anderson says.

The process starts with developing an understanding of where the perceived or actual literacy gaps are: “And the thing that absolutely addresses that is having a very focused, almost curriculum approach to addressing some of those gaps,” she says.

What doesn’t work is having a more disjointed view of what you think the business needs to know, Anderson says. “You really need to spend that time asking [business leaders] the questions and then build your education and curriculum however you choose to do it, whether it’s in person, whether you build an online digital currency or fluency program. You have to get that understanding first.”

Taking a three-pronged approach

Working with “some really smart academics,” Hussman’s Seals came up with three steps for measuring digital intelligence: digital literacy, digital vision, and digital champion.

Digital literacy is understanding the technology in terms of how it impacts your business; digital vision is how to apply it in your business; and digital champion is someone who is able to get others motivated, he says.

In terms of the latter, research squarely shows that any innovation needs a strong internal champion or it won’t be successful, Seals says.

“IT leaders need to be champions behind this digital technology … and so I need to have a vision on how to apply that in my organisation,’’ he says. Seals’ own research has shown that organisations that have a strong digital vision from the business leaders are much more likely to succeed in a digital transformation journey than those that aren’t, he says.

The focus of his doctorate work was on how legacy companies effectively drive digital transformation with a focus on leadership processes and leadership digital acuity. But the paradox Seals found is that “legacy organisations aren’t digital, so I need [business] leaders to understand the core business” and then elevate their education around digital technologies.

He is still figuring out the how-to part. There are formal processes and tools that may be embedded at Hussman, such as, for example, Business Model Canvas, which defines the customer value proposition of a strategic initiative, Seals says.

He is optimistic that as one of the “champions,” he will be able to achieve digital literacy in the C-suite. “Our leadership team is becoming more aware and more literate. We have a very strong business vision on how to execute against it and we certainly have champions. We’re early on in the execution of that vision but we built a foundation that will help us succeed,” he says.

One example is the deployment of electronic shelf labels to Hussman’s retailers. Seals says they are seeing “significant traction” in the North American market. Initiatives are reviewed at least monthly and while he declines to provide further specifics, Seals says, “We’ve embedded the digital strategies into our leadership execution cadence.”

For Seals, it is also personally rewarding because educating business leaders on digital technologies “creates a new level of excitement for a 117-year-old company. It’s incredibly fulfilling because we’re working on some exciting things and I’m seeing this organisation develop in new ways.”

Taking an ad hoc approach

Digital literacy takes time and at Rosendin, a national electrical and communications contracting firm, the approach is slow but steady. CIO Matt Lamb is focusing on educating the C-suite in three areas: cybersecurity, AI, and data.

But right now, Lamb characterises it as ad hoc education. It’s more about answering questions based on what executives are seeing in the news, he says. “They’re coming back and asking, ‘Are we safe, how are we leveraging AI, how are we using data?’”

As various questions come up, IT takes advantage of the opportunity to discuss these topics in more depth. Lamb also provides materials and articles and shares what he learns at conferences.

For now, digital literacy at Rosendin is a work in progress. “There’s certain times when [leaders are] very interested and there is an ongoing dialogue with really good conversations occurring, and then there’s times when I get too deep and I lose the audience,’’ he says. “That’s on me — I have to know my audience and not geek out too hard.”

As Lamb figures out which approach makes the most sense, he is optimistic that the effort will be worth it. “Everything is positive. We have a forward-thinking leadership and board that is supportive of technology and when it comes to budget time, things are easier.”

The art and science behind investment decisions

When an organisation develops data fluency, more effective decision-making occurs at every level of the organisation, from the CEO to the intern, says Evan Huston, chief digital officer and CTO of luxury mattress company Saatva.

“The ability to interpret, communicate, and apply data effectively serves to optimise decision-making and helps an organisation make more effective investments,’’ Huston says. “There is an art and a science behind each investment decision. Too often, business leaders operate by gut feel without the science part, which lowers their win rate.”

One of the key components to fostering a data-driven culture is to make data accessible through a user-friendly business intelligence tool while developing the organisation’s data fluency, he says.

“When this is done well, decision-makers with the most context about the decision they are trying to make are able to develop their data fluency and self-serve their needs quickly,’’ Huston says. “Fast decision-making is a [tenet] of a data-fluent organisation and has many benefits, including improved efficiency, reduced stress, and increased business success.”

At Saatva, Huston is targeting everyone for education but his approach is different for different levels of the organisation. For example, for the board and senior management, he says it’s important to have business facts at the ready to inform decisions that happen more rapidly.

“At times, significant investment decisions are determined in hallway-type conversations,’’ Huston explains. “As the chief technologist, it’s important your contribution goes beyond gut feel. Other managers and strategic operators are more likely to spend time mining your BI tool for insights so they must be armed with the ability to do that.”

He says all his time is devoted to operating in a digital- and data-fluent manner: “When you are in a leadership role, your behavior permeates throughout your team and organisation so it’s critical to lead by example.”

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