Saturday, August 8, 2015

"Digital Mindset": What is it All About?


"Digital mindset" seems to have become another buzzword--rather buzz-phrase to be grammatically precise--whenever the conversation (online or offline) veers toward social business, social learning, collaboration, and other 21st Century phenomenon in general. One of the oft-repeated reasons for the failure of Enterprise Social Networks (ESNs) in organizations is often attributed to a lack of "digital mindset" in the employees or leadership or both. It has become a specter looming over everyone's head. This post is an attempt to distill some of the skills/attitude/knowledge that possibly make up the "digital mindset". In an attempt to crystallize the skill sets, some of the finer nuances have been lost. It is also important to remember that there is no black and white distinction between digital and non-digital mindsets. It's a spectrum, and we need to move along the spectrum to make the best of the world we are in. The trigger for this post comes from a tweet-chat hosted by @WiproLPS with @bill_fischer sharing his insights on this topic. Unfortunately, I couldn't participate as I'd have wanted to but was lurking and following the stream. For those who missed it, here's the compiled chat in Storify. Thanks to @nidhisand for putting it together. 

As a precursor to my description of the defining characteristics of a digital mindset, here's a diagram created by Jacob Morgan--author of The Future of Work--encapsulating 14 Principles of the Future Organization
This diagram, by putting in perspective the characteristics of a workplace of the 21st Century, acts as a trigger to define certain qualities that everyone (employees, leaders, managers, partners, customers, and all other stakeholders) need to inculcate today. And these characteristics are what we term as "digital mindset". It's a way of being, an evolving philosophy. One of @bill_fischer tweets encapsulates the spirit of an organization that embodies the "digital mindset":
To substantiate my understanding, I also spoke to my daughter--a quintessential 23 year old--who juggles her education, projects and social life with apparent ease. Some of the insights gleaned from her adds depth to my analysis. I have noted down my cumulative understanding here. 

A "digital mindset" is not about using technology alone although that is a large part of it. While heralded by the growth and evolution of disruptive tech, it is characterized by a different perspective of the world. An individual with a "digital mindset" understands the power of technology to democratize, scale and speed up every form of interaction and action. Technology is playing a transformative role in virtually every domain today-- from IT and Telecom to Retail and Manufacturing. To cite an example: a 3D printer can reduce the design to prototype time dramatically while also allowing the flexibility to tweak the design as the model evolves (created). Technology is thus an amplifier. Having a digital mindset is the ability to grasp this spectrum of impact that the Network Era has on us and thus truly appreciate the futility of actions like knowledge hoarding for power, enforcing hierarchy, building siloed work environments, following old world processes, and such. The tweets by +Abhijit Bhaduri from the tweet chat synthesize the core qualities. 
I have tried to contrast the characteristics of the Industrial Era with the Digital. While it is obviously not always black and white, it's an attempt to delineate what differentiates this era from the ones gone by.
  • Agile and adaptable - Agility here is more than just adapting to change. In the age of disruptive tech, we must be able to foresee and change before the need to change arises. Agility in this context encompasses the skill of being able to scan the landscape and ecosystem of one's domain of work, keep pace with what is happening at the edges, and evolve to remain relevant. In the digital era, this would mean being comfortable with technology, seeing change as an opportunity, and accepting the new ways of working without feeling threatened. It means a comfort with ambiguity that would have been undreamed of in the process-driven era of assembly line production. 
  • Flexible about time and space: In a connected world where we are very often working, learning, and interacting with individuals across the globe as a normal course of life, time takes on a different meaning. We have to let go off a rigid definition of "work time" versus "personal time". We often complete personal work during the nine-to-five slot and collaborate with global colleagues post dinner to co-create proposals for clients. While many organizations still insist on office presence, it is becoming a thing of the past and anytime, anywhere work is becoming the mantra. What this means for IT, Cyber-security and other infrastructure-related challenges is a vast topic of debate and exploration. The emerging reality is that work and life are becoming one. Does this mean work will take over every bit of our time? It might if we let it. It also means we have to be excellent managers of time, have a clear vision of our life's purpose and devote time to what is important to us accordingly. It means taking full responsibility for all aspects of our life...
  • Comfortable with ambiguity: In today's landscape, we are more often than not operating in the Complex zone of the Cynefin framework. I often refer to this sense-making model because it provides a simple yet powerful heuristic for evaluating where we stand in relation to other contexts. I have included the diagram below for reference:

When we operate in the Complex zone, we can only connect cause and effect in hindsight. Exceptions, unusual business models disrupting traditional ways of operating, disruptive tech with their emergent nature, all fall in the Complex category. One needs to be agile, adaptive, and vigilant to operate in this zone. 
  • Taking risks and exploring: A digital mindset includes using technology as a tool for exploration. Possessing a traveler's exploratory nature and an innate curiosity to go beyond one's defined work role is a critical skill to have today. Complex, unknown work and exceptions cannot be captured by pre-defined Job Descriptions. Those who can seize the opportunity to explore and learn beyond the call of duty will be the ones who remain relevant, fearless in the face of change and bring value to themselves and the organizations they work for. The doors that a networked world have opened for us can be the playground. 
  • Open to learning and collaboration: "Collaboration" seems to be the mantra of the era. Whether it is about remaining agile and connected to the edges or about completing a project, collaboration gets called upon. And along with it comes "collaborative learning". In the Complex zone, past experiences and expertise are not necessarily reliable predictors of the future. And an individual with a handful of frameworks and heuristics cannot make sense of the immensely complex and rapidly changing ecosystem. Innovating and creating value in this context require a coming together of cognitively diverse individuals who come with varied experiences and different ways of seeing. Collaboration is the only way to make sense in a complex world and define emergent practices that work. 
  • Respectful of diverse perspectives: Collaboration alone won't suffice unless it is inclusive. Cognitive diversity is what helps us to make sense in the Complex zone. People thinking alike are unlikely to come up with innovative ideas when faced with an exception or an unknown challenge. It requires people with different mental models and holding divergent worldviews to do so effectively. Hence, a digital mindset has to be essentially open, respectful, and inclusive. This is perhaps one of the most critical ones and difficult to inculcate. We as humans are naturally prone to homophily and confirmation bias. Any person, idea or situation that threatens our preconceived and pre-held notions are usually met with defensiveness or evasion. A digital mindset essentially means going beyond the obvious and engaging in dialogues with different minds. 
  • Connecting the global with the local: This generation has grown up with a uniquely global perspective. They didn't have to wait to acquire global experience through travel. It was all around them, brought to them by the power of technology in a uber-connected world. Thus, there is an innately greater tolerance, acceptance of diversity, and an overall inclusive attitude. And those still unable to grasp the implications of a global world find themselves left behind made unfit for a more open world. The digital era requires the ability to switch context between the global and the local and to understand how each impact the other. 
  • Connecting through ideas: A critical digital is also the ability to build trusted connections with colleagues, communities and networks without necessarily any face-to-face connect. We often have a wide network of professionals and colleagues with whom we share a deep connect without having ever seen them. This is the era of connected ideas. We voluntarily come together and form communities and Personal Learning Networks (PLNs) because of our aligned passions, worldviews even though geographically we may well be worlds apart and mindsets. I have never met 70% of my most trusted and respected members of the PLN community and yet do not feel the distance. 
Hence, IMHO, digital mindset is not only about using technology but it is much more about changing the way we operate in the world, in our community and in our lives. It comes with its drawbacks but that is inevitable in a period of deep and hitherto unimaginable transition. The key is to remember that these characteristics do not exist in isolation. They are all interlinked and feed into each other. Someone who is open and collaborative is also likely to welcome diverse perspectives. It is a set of behavioral patterns that signify a digital mindset. It is about changing the lenses through which we view the world.


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