Making Talent: 4 Lessons from the Front Lines Of Digital Education

Allison Kent-Smith, founder of Smith & Beta, discusses the lack of talent development (digital or otherwise) at most companies and shares a few lessons from her POV as a digital trainer.

Making Talent: 4 Lessons from the Front Lines Of Digital Education
[Photo: Laura Kidd, Flickr user Amplified Group]

At times, I hear secrets. Recently I met a prominent business leader, a person who manages multi-million dollar global client relationships at an established company. He admitted that he “walks into work naked every single day.” In other words, his skills have not evolved to meet the digital-specific demands of his job. It’s likely that his supervisor and colleagues are unaware of the extent of his skill deficiency. His lack of digital expertise, coupled with an inability to admit what he doesn’t know, costs the company hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost opportunities annually.


Many businesses have a digital talent deficiency. CEOs ignore this problem at their peril. The wise ones pay attention. In 2014, an Accenture research report fueled the discussion by calling “human capital…one of the biggest areas of growth.” Three quarters of CEOs surveyed aim to increase their investments in human capital including recruitment, retention, training and other skills development. Yet many companies remain focused on talent recruitment versus developing the skills of employees who walk in the door each day.

Photo: Flickr user Quinn Dombrowski

Traditional training programs often bear the weighty combination of old methodologies, risk aversion and minimum investment. E-learning? For whatever promises web-based learning may have raised, we struggle to make engaging and meaningful use of the technology. Embodied social experiences such as professional conferences and one-time workshops provide temporary insight that often fades after a return to a workplace of non-attendees. Employees are either lucky enough to learn digital skills on the job, or not.

Companies must be in the business of creating talent, particularly in the fields of social media, mobile and data analytics. Leaders from agencies like Ogilvy & Mather recognize the talent challenge and are creating solutions. Adam Tucker, president, Ogilvy & Mather Advertising (New York) recently reflected: “As an industry we’re at an important juncture. While consumers move seamlessly through online and offline worlds, we’re playing catch up. One path is to fake it and risk getting called out. Alternatively, we’ve chosen to arm our talent with comprehensive, on-going digital education and training. We feel it’s the only means to create a sustainable competitive advantage.”

Given the multilayered task of creating a more digital savvy culture, what are the starting points? The pitfalls? The myths? Below are four lessons learned as someone at the front lines of digital talent development:

Photo: Flickr user Todd Petrie

Lesson 1: “Pretend” is not progress

Make sure that “pretending” to understand digital is not an acceptable behavior at your company. We all have more to learn. In fact, we have to perpetually learn and adapt. If you think you know enough, that’s the first clue that you don’t. Savvy companies must set up structures for employees to fully participate in 21st-century work demands. Provide employees with a safe outlet for posing questions, generating discussion, and exploring technologies. Ensure that reviews include an ongoing discussion about the specific digital goals you create for individuals and how that fits into the larger vision of the company. And make sure that “training” is not what you call your program for combating pretending. Employees resist “training” in the traditional sense. Connect education to digital strategy and ensure that a talent development representative sits at the C-level table.

Photo: Flickr user Régine Debatty

Lesson 2: Know your talent

In order to develop the talent, you must first know the talent. Begin by asking appropriate questions about digital competencies. Survey the entire company and analyze what employees know (even if levels are self-assessed) then provide data-informed recommendations for what they need to know, by role and in general. In addition, ask what motivates employees to learn, what roadblocks to education exist, and how a formal learning program could help them create greater business opportunity. Employees will provide insight needed to design a program that fits your particular business.

Photo: Flickr user BMiz

Lesson 3: Application is essential

What makes modern, digital-focused workplace education programs different is a focus on meaningful making and applying. Active learning is particularly meaningful. Your newly designed education program should be connected to the day-to-day realities of the job. Even the most engaging content will fail if employees can’t go back to their desk and apply what they’ve learned. Your program should be longitudinal and built with sequential and developmental logic. Design varied education programming that allows for experimentation with new skills or knowledge but focus on real work opportunities. This approach motivates learners to practice what they’ve learned in class in a more risk-free, supportive context. Encourage play, reflection, and prototyping as alternative modes of experience and communication. We should all follow the lead of Kip Voytek, CEO of Rumblefox, who believes, “Breaking, melting, burning, and blowing stuff up is fun–and it’s part of learning.”

Photo: Flickr user Starmanseries

Lesson 4: Enlist the Experts

In any given organization, there will be a mix of learning needs, skill levels and receptivity. Ask internal experts to teach, ask them to get involved in planning, promotion, and program design. You may even invite them to participate in and facilitate courses with novices; this mix of expertise often creates the best dialogue and learning trajectories. When internal experts become teachers, the education program has a reverberating impact. Also, don’t forget that the best mix of teachers comes from both inside and outside the organization. External teachers offer an objective point of view that is often missing from internally led education programs. Recruit experts from outside your industry. Ask them to provide content that challenges internal assumptions, expertise and execution–this will make all the difference.

To fully succeed in a dynamic, competitive business environment, talent development must be a top priority. Today’s most successful employee education programs look very different from training methods shaped from the industrial model of education. Given the dearth of digital talent, one must consider the transformation of current employees to close the digital literacy gap. Competent, curious, and engaged employees certainly increase employment and business opportunities, often in unforeseen ways. After all, in the digital age, we’re only as good as the talent we make.

Now, go make some talent.

Allison Kent-Smith is founder and managing partner at Smith & Beta.