Are you under investing in your digital staff?

What follows is an open letter to those who manage digital teams. It implores them to invest more in their digital staff.

Dear management.
Let me introduce myself. My name is Paul Boag. I am the author of the books Digital Adaptation, User Experience Revolution and cofounder of digital agency Headscape. I have over 20 years of web experience consulting for organisations such as government bodies, higher education institutions and large businesses. I also speak around the world on Digital Transformation.

Hopefully this has earned me at least a level of credibility when it comes to digital strategy. So please believe me when I say you are under investing in your digital team.

Don’t get me wrong. Not every organisation is under investing in digital. But if you are reading this then somebody has forwarded it to you. That means at least one person thinks your organisation is.

I understand that business functions are always moaning that they need more money. I understand that digital may feel like pouring money into a black hole with little return. But the reality is the world has changed and if you do not pay more attention to digital it will threaten your business.

Why digital matters

Digital is not just another marketing channel. It is not even just a technology tool. It is a social phenomenon. Like the printing press, factory line and automobile, digital has transformed the world in which we live.

Digital has decimated sectors and closed the doors of major brand names. Companies such as Kodak, Blockbusters, Tower Records, HMV, Woolworths… The list could go on.

Digital has transformed media. Now every customer has an audience. They can broadcast to the world in real time. If dissatisfied with your company a single update from them can lead to a cascade that could impact your share price.

Digital is changing customer expectations. With the competition a click away, customer’s loyalty is harder than ever to earn. This has led to a new generation of companies focused on customer service, raising the bar for the rest of us. When companies such as Google provide good digital services for free, customers are sure to expect the same from you.

Digital is transforming the workplace. Digital is becoming a key component of day to day business life. Social media, website updates, intranets and other tools are the life blood of organisations. Also, a new generation of digital workers is entering the workplace. They will expect the same quality of digital tools they use in their personal life.

In essence, digital is reshaping our world and if we do not invest in adapting to this new reality our organisations will fail.

Why you are under investing

With digital transforming our world and becoming so business critical, why do we under invest? The truth is it is a generational problem. Most management teams are baby boomers or generation x. Neither generation is digital natives. In other words, we haven’t grown up in a digital world. To us physical investments in infrastructure or staff make sense. Digital assets are in our eyes less valuable.

Take a moment to look at your expenditure. How much do you invest in your physical assets compared to your digital? I am betting there is a huge difference. That is because we view digital as an optional extra in our lives.

For us digital is an addition to our lives. A luxury if you will. We see it as a luxury for our businesses too. The problem is that for many this is no longer the case. The digital natives of the millennial generation do not differentiate between digital and real life. They value both. They see as much value in buying virtual goods as physical ones.

If you look at the new generation of digital companies you will see this investment balance reversed. Google, Facebook and Twitter invest more in their digital presence than they do in their offices and for good reason.

Of course, saying that we’re biased against digital does not mean that more investment is justifiable. But there are good reasons for suggesting this is the case.

What makes me believe you are under investing

Unfortunately our biases are having a real impact on what we fund and how we fund it. Take for example your website. For those of us who grew up with the industrial model of business, we view our websites much in the same way we view a building.

To our minds a website needs planning and building. Sure it may need some minor maintenance but other than that it is complete.

The result of this is that we have small web teams designed just to do the maintenance on the website. They update content, fix bugs and that is about it. They do not have the resources to do anything more.

The truth is a website is more like a garden than a building. It needs constant tending and improving. You need to be evolving a site as the web involves and as business requirements change. This means that digital teams need to be large enough to enable the evolution of digital assets.

Our same biases apply to how we treat digital staff. We are used to mature industries where investment in the training of staff is minimal. Unfortunately digital is not like that. Digital evolves at such a rapid rate that digital professionals are always learning. If they do not their skills become out of date. No wonder companies like Google allow employees a day a week for learning and working on their own projects.

Unfortunately few of the in-house teams I encounter have the time or budget to maintain their skills in this fast moving world.

Finally, our biases mean we do not pay our digital staff enough either. That or we only recruit junior employees.

We see digital teams as a service department. Their job is to put in place the vision of others. This means in the eyes of management digital staff do not need to be senior appointments. Often digital professionals are younger. This further reinforces our view of them as being junior members of staff.

The truth is that digital is now so business critical it needs strong, experienced digital leadership.

Organisations cannot survive on junior staff. Today’s digital team needs to drive digital strategy and adoption. We cannot allow departments with less experience in digital to define our digital direction.

It is important to note that experience does not mean age when it comes to digital. Many of the most experienced digital professionals are in their twenties or early thirties. In an industry that is still young and changing so fast, age means nothing. We need to pay digital professionals based on their skills not their age.

Digitally native companies get this. That is why many organisations find retention of digital staff so hard. Digital professionals are much in demand. Only junior and inexperienced will stay in an organisation who undervalue their digital employees.

How to fix the problem

More investment is not all you can do to improve things. But, it is a part of the solution.

Too often with digital we will invest in technology. What we should be investing in is people. An experienced team can achieve more than any content management or customer relationship system.

Start by finding a good digital lead. Somebody with experience in both digital and leadership. A good digital team won’t need management in the traditional sense. They need a strong leader to set direction and protect the team from internal politics and culture.

Next expand the team and give them authority over all digital elements. Bringing digital together in one place will create cost savings. Expanding the team will give them time to both evolve the digital offering and keep up to date.

Allow them time each week to experiment and try new things. This will help them improve their skillset and increase morale. Most digital professionals love learning.

Set aside a modest training budget for digital staff. A budget they can spend on conferences, workshops, books or any other material that will help them keep their skills sharp.

Give them the right tools to do their job. Don’t expect your digital team to use the same computers as accounting. Also, don’t restrict their access to the sites and services they need. Too often network restrictions and under powered equipment can waste days of time.

Stop thinking of your digital team as a service department. Instead, put them in charge of the organisation’s digital direction. They will step up to the challenge and it will also help with staff retention. I am confident they will surprise you.

Finally, challenge your own mindset. Try and think ‘digital by default’. In other words, when confronted by a business problem, ask your digital team if it is a problem they can help with. Often digital can help and does so at a lower price than traditional methods. I have worked with clients who replaced call centres with online self-service and saved millions a year. Or a charity who focused on improving website conversion instead of spending more money on TV advertising. They succeeded in improving donations and saved money in the process.

Digital has so much potential but also threatens to undermine the status quo. It is time to invest in your digital staff if you want to reap the benefits and avoid the dangers.

Yours sincerely

Boagworks Boagworld