Digital Transformation Dialogues – Part 3 – Bringing an Older Workforce up to Speed and Driving Adoption of Digital Tools

[Here’s more from my ongoing dialogue with transformation expert and friend Scott K Wilder. In the last post, we discussed the role of Millennials in balancing an older workforce. But I wanted a little more detail on how to get an older workforce more digitally aware…]

SW: I probably forgot this one because I am an older guy, but I’m also someone who thinks it’s every marketer’s responsibility to learn digital technology. Before I directly answer the question, let me give you an example. My son is really into drones and wants me to take him to some national parks so he can fly his drone. Before I make a road trip with him, however, I want to master drones, so I hired a drone coach. After all, I am the one who is ultimately responsible for my son’s safety. Working at as a Digital Marketer or Digital Employee requires the same commitment. The only difference, however, is that companies need to play a bit of the parental role and provide a clear path for their employees to learn about technology.

This can be done by paying for courses (Marketo, my former employer, pays for its employees to take courses at It can be done by making ‘learning certain technologies’ as required for the job. Instead of saying you learn it or you lose it (your job), position this change as an opportunity to skill up — and that the company is investing in the future (in its best asset, its employees).

Companies also should provide career guidance — either for older employees to find other opportunities within their company or with a company’s partner. Training, career guidance are not only great retention tools, but also build loyalty after an employee moves on.

Companies also need to gently require that digital technologies be used in their everyday business practices. If the older person wants to remain part of the company, they will have to hop on the digital bus. And like the Magic School Bus (a book my kid loves), it will be a journey into unknown — with lots of opportunity to learn, a bit of uncertainty and a fun adventure. You know what. Even outside the office, they will feel as if they are on the Magic School Bus because by learning technology, older folks can have a more enriched life. My son Facetimes and Skypes with his Grandma twice a week.

Why should companies do this? Why should they make this investment? Several reasons, such as older workers tend to be loyal, older workers already know ‘your business’. Companies should also build incentive systems — gamify their career development — so they will be motivated to take on the exciting challenge of improving their skills.

Final note: Being Digital is more than just using the internet and Facebook. Companies should also figure out what digital technologies will help these older workers do their job better. If they need to be on social media, teach them Hootsuite. If they need to manage email programs, teach them Autopilot or Exact Target. If they need to collaborate better, be their guide while they learn Slack or HipChat.

GA: There’s a couple of points that I want to particularly call-out there. One is that company’s aren’t taking full advantage of the explosion in high-quality educational courseware that’s available these days. Sure, lots of folks will do this on their own, but not everyone is sufficiently motivated. I’ve always said my number one guiding principal – and the reason transformation is so hard – is that EVERYONE IS FUNDAMENTALLY LAZY. Giving people real incentives and formal guidance on courseware so that it’s part of an employee’s basic career development is really easy to do and I think pays tremendous dividends. If your company hasn’t curated public courseware for specific career-tracks and incentivized your employees to take advantage, you should be kicking your HR team’s butt (just my humble opinion).

I’m also a huge fan of the idea (as you know) that people have to DO stuff. And I’m glad you brought up the technologies because that’s the next (and last) area I wanted to explore. A lot of the digital technologies are fundamentally collaborative. But that can make adoption critical to their success. I know you’ve been living this problem – how do you get a team (and keep my older, non-digital workers in mind) to adopt tools like Slack?

SW: Gary, why are you always asking me the hard questions? I think you ‘re correct in focusing on ‘the team’ vs. ‘the company’ and trying to mandate day 1 that a whole company start using something like Slack.

They key is to start with one group.  Pick a team that seems receptive to taking on new ways of doing things — especially when it comes to digital technology. And within that group, you should also identify a few key digital change agents, early adopters, who are willing to not only try out the new technology, but also be champions for it.

Create a program for these digital champions. It can be rewards focused, but even better,  show them how sharing their knowledge and experience will help them learn a new technology even better and make them more marketable. Intuit, where I spent almost a full decade, has a philosophy called “Learn Teach Learn.” The only way to really learn something is to teach it to others (Intuit has a great learning culture!).

Of course, there is another option. You could see if any group in the company is currently using Slack and make them that group ‘your change agents. At Marketo, it was actually the company’s commuters — employees who took a small shuttle bus that looked like one of those vans old age homes use to transport its frail residents – who started using Slack. They let their fellow workers know if they wanted the bus to wait for them or if they wanted the van to turn around and pick up someone they forgot. My group of commuters called our Slack group, The Purple Lobster.

The Slack group was called the Purple Lobster because that’s what we called the van. We picked purple because that was Marketo’s company color. And lobster because it wasn’t the fastest moving vehicle on Highway 101.

And like a lobster slithering in the sand (sorry about pushing the poetic envelop here) slowly, but surely ,other commuting groups started to using Slack. Eventually, product teams started using it And finally, the CTO and his team made the call to not fight the crowd and force the company to use another tool, like Chatter. Instead, CIO convinced his fellow executives to adopt Slack across the company. It was a brilliant ‘if you can’t beat them, then join them’ strategy.

If you identify a group using Slack, challenge them to go completely cold Turkey. See if they are willing to only use Slack only (no email) for a week or so. At Atlassian, I had my hand Slacked when I tried to send an email to someone with a simple question. They recommended I use their Slack like product, Hipchat. And now, I only have 20 emails in my inbox. How many of you have only 20 emails in your corporate email inbox?

If you are not so lucky to find early adopters, you need to find a group of people who are most like to use the new technology. If there are some older folks on the team, pair them up with the younger wipper snappers. Or provide some training.

The key in all this is not to focus on technology. Instead, treat the change to Slack or any other digital technology as a change management exercise. Focus on adoption — education, onboarding and engagement. None of this should be done in a vacuum. You need someone to shepherd the process. Someone who can be a guide, a teacher, a problem solver and yes, a true change agent.

Other considerations include rewarding people for their efforts and successes. Gamify the process! In doing so, make sure to acknowledge people’s efforts for trying. Don’t make the same mistake most schools make and only pass people for knowing the answer. As Carol Dweck, well known motivational researcher,  points out, children praised for hard work chose problems that promised increased learning (vs. just getting the right answer). This also applies to adults. Really!

The key here is to alter someone’s mindset. Instead of rewarding (just giving them a bonus) or punishing someone (not promoting them) for adopting a new technology, recognize their effort and hard work. The end result will be they might adopt taking on new challenges and succeeding at them. Even if it means learning and using something like Slack.

Finally good old training is important. It always amazes me how many companies introduce a new technology and offer one time training. Usually during a three hour class. If you are licensing a technology like Slack, see if they can conduct monthly webinars to answer questions (if not, you offer it). Also have videos and Q&As available for your staff.

Personally, I would rather be HipChatted vs. Slacked. But technology sometimes like religion. You have to find out what people are most comfortable with. At Marketo, it was Slack. At Salesforce, it is Chatter. For me, I prefer to be Skyped!. How about you?