A New Way to Think about the Digital Workforce

Much of the current discussion around the digitization of industries involves the specific technologies that are driving change so rapidly. On almost every digital-oriented blog or news site, one can find analyses weighing and examining the impact on today’s workforce of trends from big data to intelligent automation, and executives and business leaders are constantly discussing the best approaches for overhauling their companies’ digital systems in order to keep up with the pace their disruptive rivals are setting. But alongside all this technology-focused conversation, a parallel dialogue is beginning to emerge, one that re-establishes the primacy in today’s digital workplace of a somewhat surprising element: people.

Why people still matter in the digital workplace.

workplaceDespite the sweeping scale of recent digital change and the many innovative technologies now in common use that were scarcely imaginable even a decade ago, many thought leaders are still quick to point out that, at their most fundamental level, digital technologies are in fact human technologies. In other words, they argue, it’s important to remember that the breakthroughs and disruptions brought about by new technologies are all essentially in pursuit of the very human goals of helping people amplify their performance, accomplish tasks more effectively, and make better decisions.

Leading global consulting firm Accenture highlighted this idea in its 2016 Technology Vision report, which explored the theme of “People First” and emphasized that, far from becoming obsolete as more and more innovative technologies emerge, the role of people in the digital economy is as vital as ever. It also promoted the idea that digital companies can get the best results not through technology alone, but by people and machines working together in combination.

Against this backdrop, then, it’s important to take another look at exactly what we mean when we talk about “the digital workforce.” That is, we need to remind ourselves that the digital workforce is not a unified, anonymous entity powered by technology. Rather, it is a collection of diverse individuals with their own particular characteristics, all leveraging technology to varying degrees to enhance their ability to do their jobs.

Who comprises the digital workforce?

IT research and advisory company Gartner recently identified five key, distinct categories of digital workers, shaped by differing demographics, work styles, and technology affinities. Taking a closer look at these groups can help us better understand the different personalities of the digital workforce, and how those traits combine to contribute to a people-first digital workplace.

The five worker segments are as follows:

Engineers—Today’s technology elite are the engineers, typically later-career IT workers or managers with a strong sense of confidence in their own skills and technical knowledge and in the technological capacity of their organizations. Out of all five worker groups, engineers are the most likely (at a rate of one in four) to describe themselves as experts in applying digital technology to solve business problems. As such, engineers are typically highly sought after by digital workplace leaders to serve as qualified, credible, and assured ambassadors for the digital culture of the new workplace.

Mavericks—As their name implies, mavericks prefer to do things their own way. Despite being the newest arrivals to the workforce—mavericks are typically just starting their careers—they often feel limited by their organizations’ rigidity around the use of technology, and are therefore more likely to turn to technological tools and solutions that are not authorized, or at any rate not directly provided, by their companies. Smart digital workplace leaders take advantage of this unorthodox behavior to discover a wealth of unique, untapped insights into workplace productivity and new digital frontiers.

Pilots—Generally in mid-career, pilots are comfortable enough with technology, but they spend more of their time on their feet than at their desks. For this reason, they are more skeptical of the benefits that developing digital skills can offer to them in terms of advancing their careers. However, once they are convinced they tend to be willing enough to explore and incorporate new digital applications and devices into their work, even in more traditional industries that are not necessarily at the forefront of digital development.

Navigators—Another mid-career category, navigators are the professional counterpart to the more production-oriented pilots. These office-based workers are competent with technology, if not experts in its use, but they do strongly believe in the benefits of digital processes and are consequently more likely to value digital skills than almost any other group. These values, however, are often at odds with their actions: while still recognizing digital’s importance, navigators typically prefer to use tried-and-true solutions rather than new, untested approaches for work-related challenges.

Caretakers—Late-career workers who lack confidence in using technology at work fall into this category. These workers are unlikely to feel they have much to gain from developing digital skills, and they are frequently dissatisfied with the digital devices and applications they do employ, which tend to be out of date. However, this category has a valuable role to play in the digital workplace. Because caretakers are repositories of decades of experience with business processes, digital workplace leaders must find ways of blending this group’s knowledge base with digital skills in order to effectively make the transition to a digital culture.