4 Skills Everyone Needs to Thrive in a Digital Future

A fourth industrial revolution arises from mainstream consumer adoption of digital technologies 

by Lee Lazarus and Janine Kurnoff 

There’s a lot of talk these days about disruption and the constant change we all seem to experience at faster and faster speeds. In the past decade, every industry worldwide has been impacted by the rise of technology, people and interactivity coming together to create an explosion of new products and services that did not even exist 10 years ago. Who could believe that one day we’d feel comfortable renting a room in a stranger’s home (Airbnb), ride in the backseat of their car (Uber), or carry around a mobile device with more computing power than the Apollo spacecraft used to fly to the Moon! 

With this change, the ability for a company, and its employees, to adapt quickly has never been more vital for businesses to succeed. Nearly nine out of 10 (88%) of Fortune 500 companies in 1955 are now gone, merged or contracted — and, at the current churn rate, half of S&P’s 500 Firms will be replaced over the next 10 years. 

Sitting at the center of this change is the mainstream consumer adoption of digital technologies that have created a fourth industrial revolution inspiring a David-and-Goliath competition between small startups and corporate giants. Those that embrace the adoption of all things digital are transforming how we do business — and, more importantly, how we use data gathered through AI and machine learning to have connected 1:1 relationships with our customers. This people-centric, insights-driven approach to business is going to require executives who want to survive and thrive in the digital future to adopt four critical skills:

Learn, Unlearn, Relearn

In a world that is constantly changing, every right idea is eventually the wrong one. Upskilling is not simply a matter of teaching people how to use something new. That something new may be obsolete by next year. According to experts, close to 40% of the information people learn today will be useless within a decade. In today’s business environment, where the rules (and sometimes players) constantly change, we need to stop playing the game as though it had a distinct beginning, middle and end. Think of it as the difference between playing baseball and playing a video game. The business goal is no longer to win at the game, like baseball (and then you’re done), but to stay in the game and thrive. These are dynamic games where the rules are constantly changing, and the objective is to play better than yesterday and, most importantly, to keep the game in play.

Getting good at this requires ongoing training and learning so as to develop evolving capabilities that can flex and adapt to the changing needs of business. Learners embrace the unknown, take risks, fail and succeed, all while learning, unlearning and relearning in a constantly evolving world driven by disruptive innovation. This continuous 360-learning experience allows individuals to shift away from “one and done” education (like getting an MBA that quickly becomes outdated) and, instead, embrace infinite learning that allows for them to think, act and thrive in a digital world that is sustainable over time.

Use Data to Drive Decision-Making 

The future of work is increasingly being defined by human-machine collaboration. Automating routine tasks allows a business to increase efficiency while shifting focus toward the most valuable aspects of a creative workforce and complex problem solving (and allows for the creation of an entirely new field of jobs based on our human skills). 

For example, the world is surrounded by data (and more data). What to do with this flood of information requires an organization to shift from Big Data to Big Understanding. With advances in AI, machine learning and real-time analytics, quickly fading from view are traditional product development and consumer targeting practices that relied upon broad-use cases, outdated Age/Demo/Zip consumer segmentation, static pricing and linear purchase “funnels” that don’t work in today’s increasingly omnichannel retail environments. 

Regardless of function area, data gathered through real-time signals is helping HR, finance, sales, marketing, product development and even creative make better, more informed and faster decisions about what is working and not working with their employees and external customers. For marketers, getting good at this allows them to harness the holy grail of customer buying experience by serving customers the right product offer with the right creative at the right time. Data-driven decision-making = Growth and Profitability. 

Adopt Agile Product Development & Marketing 

Surprisingly, many executives get bogged down in the process required to move forward quickly. Historically, getting a new product out, or even a new marketing campaign, took a year or more to develop; today’s speed of business, however, won’t wait for traditional lumbering five-year plans to be implemented. 

Here’s the secret: Real change actually happens in tiny increments. For example, a company like Netflix is pushing innovation by optimizing its streaming platform continually, knowing the viewer will give it only 60 to 90 seconds as they scan through 10 to 20 titles before losing interest. This continual incremental adaptation allows Netflix to embrace radical improvements over time, resulting in 80% of viewer choices being based upon Netflix recommendations. 

Here’s another way to look at it: If we wanted to create a mode of transportation that gets us from point A to point B, would we start with a wheel that leads to a chassis that leads to a door that eventually becomes an automobile, or would we start with something simple, like a skateboard, and then get it into the hands of a consumer and iterate and iterate (allowing little changes to add up to big innovations along the way)? 

Facebook adopts this agile approach with the slogan “shipped is better than perfect.” The idea is that as long as a product is sitting somewhere being thought about, dreamed about, improved upon or held onto because “it’s not ready yet,” it has no relevance in the world. A “shipped” finished product — whatever form it takes — may have its flaws. It may be criticized or judged. It may be rejected. But at least it’s out there.

An effective strategy for business leaders is to embrace imperfectionism and move fast and make things — things that they know can and will change over time. By learning and relearning, and using data to drive decision-making, they will be headed into a successful and agile digital future. 

Leverage Storytelling to Increase Collaboration and, Yes … Innovation

And finally, in a world of headlines, overflowing inboxes and information overload, the ability to communicate and get ideas heard is critical. Probably the biggest complaint we hear from business leaders is their struggle to deal with an always-on/never done business culture where ideas across an organization are not being shared, opportunities for collaboration breakdown and, ultimately, innovation suffers. 

The solution? Storytelling. Simply put, a great story helps us cut through the noise and be heard internally with our co-workers and externally with our clients and business partners. Most great ideas that come to life start with great storytelling. It’s how we move business forward. Why? Because storytelling creates a speed of trust with co-workers that encourages shared ideas to spread across an organization. If we look at any great product breakthrough in the past decade that disrupted an industry, chances are it came out of an organization that communicates and collaborates well with one another through the power of storytelling. 

And people who thrive in rich, storytelling ecosystems rapidly rise in their careers. It’s the essential ingredient in building a mastery of ideas, connection and the power skill everyone wants: executive presence. Whether it’s making a recommendation to a boss’s boss, providing a product update or managing difficult questions from a prospective customer, knowing how to build a story framework humanizes the content, creates a two-way dialogue, and lets business leaders meet their audience’s needs in the moment. 

Lee Lazarus (left), founder and chief revenue officer of The Presentation Company, oversees sales and custom solutions. Lazarus has been bred in the lightning-fast business pace of Silicon Valley. She deeply understands the client’s need for workshops and custom solutions that simplify storytelling and help drive business decisions forward. 

Prior to joining TPC, Lazarus spent a decade developing the branding, marketing communication and PR strategy for two of the fastest-growing internet and telecommunications market research firms in Silicon Valley. As head of media relations, she knew the importance of translating mounds of data and information into clear and concise messages. 

Lazarus received her bachelor’s degree from Boston University’s School of Communication. 

Janine Kurnoff (right), founder and chief innovation officer of The Presentation Company, oversees global training and design. Kurnoff has a diverse background in international business, sales and broadcasting. As lead visionary at TPC, Kurnoff thrives on optimizing the ways she can help professionals present their ideas in a manner that is captivating and results-driven.

Prior to founding TPC, Kurnoff worked for Yahoo! Inc. in sales training and, later, as an on-camera webcast host where she interviewed some of Silicon Valley’s top CEOs, market strategists and Hollywood celebrities.

Kurnoff is a web-conferencing expert, presentation design expert and certified Microsoft PowerPoint specialist. She received her MBA in international business from the Monterey Institute of International Studies and is fluent in Italian and Spanish. She has also been a member of the Oregon Entrepreneur Network, a local nonprofit organization, and a volunteer for American Field Service, an international student exchange program.

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