13 essential skills for accelerating digital transformation

By Ringside Talent Partners

May 27, 2024

IT leaders too often find themselves behind on business-critical transformation efforts due to gaps in the technical, leadership, and business skills necessary to execute and drive change.

Digital transformation is indeed a cornerstone of business strategy today, as 89% of enterprises see digital businessas core to their growth, according to Gartner’s Board of Directors 2023 Survey. Equally telling is another statistic from that research: Just 35% of these enterprises have achieved their digital goals or are on track to do so.

“This underlines the need for organizations to embrace change and adopt a more agile and forward-thinking approach to digital transformation skills in order to overcome challenges and achieve digital transformation,” says Monika Sinha, research vice president in Gartner’s CIO Research group.

It’s no secret that having the right capabilities is essential to digital success, but given the dynamic nature of digital business, these capabilities go beyond technical know-how.

“Forward-thinking companies are increasingly clear that they need to be hiring not for skills but for aptitudes,” says Sanjay Srivastava, chief digital strategist at Genpact. “People that succeed will have a simple philosophy of curiosity — they will think about their progression as ‘learn, unlearn, relearn.’”

Rebecca Fox, group CIO for UK-based information assurance firm NCC Group, notes that the mix of skills that drive digital success have a common theme: “They are centered around delivery into the business and making sure the business gets value from the investment made,” she says.

And that is the rub. “The market is tight, but we are not short of people with technical skills; people who can develop, build infrastructure, and understand the cloud,” says Fox. “However, now the technical team and business need to align to drive process innovation and automation into the business, using technology to drive down cost and improve delivery times for customers. These are different types of talent — where relationships, understanding commercial arrangement, and of course a deep understanding of the business are all critical, as is understanding at some level the complexity and technical requirements.”

Here’s how IT leaders, analysts, and other experts view the skills critical to digital success and how they factor into ongoing digital progress.

Building future-ready foundations

For Charley Betzig, managing director at IT executive recruiting firm Heller Search Associates, skills critical to digital success depend largely on where companies are in their journeys. During the initial foundational phase, when IT is focused on integrating data and systems, and on building digital platforms, technology skills factor in heavily.

Cloud architecture skills in particular provide “the backbone for scalable, cost-effective, and agile IT infrastructure that supports digital transformation,” says Gartner’s Sinha.

Data skills are also vital, says NCC Group’s Fox. “Getting the design correct at the start is crucial — from selecting the right technologies, understanding how things will scale and providing resilience, but also how data will move through to the solution,” she says. “I can’t stress enough focus on data — and how it will be used — as most digital transformation programs will be a tapestry of systems.”

Indeed, integration has become a highly valued skill given how digital strategies have evolved, says Todd Musgrove, associate principal in the technology transformation practice at The Hackett Group.

“In the earlier phases, digital transformation centered on exploring and investing in novel technologies,” Musgrove says. “Now, the emphasis lies in the consolidation, refinement, and expansion of these digital initiatives. Businesses are concentrating on incorporating digital solutions into their core operations, service offerings, and products while establishing seamless integration across various business units and functions.”

At Merchants Fleet, building out a modern data and analytics infrastructure to support the fleet management solutions provider’s growth and ensure the delivery of a superior client experience has been a top priority. That involved enabling a 360-degree view of the client and visibility into the end-to-end client cycle — from vehicle onboarding, to monitoring driver safety, to asset utilization and total cost of ownership.

Laying that groundwork opens possibilities for the future. “The analytics foundation and infrastructure our tech team has created is setting the company up for success over the next five to ten years as fleet managers and municipalities move towards managing driverless networks,” says Jeanine L. Charlton, Merchant Fleet’s senior vice president and chief technology and digital officer, who has a team of data scientists in Chicago developing new operational capabilities. “We are in a great position to define the tech operations required to move to the next phase of the market when full driverless networks begin to come online.”

Leading change

But the foundation isn’t everything. As Betzig frames it, the next phase involves the business application of that foundation. Here, one of the biggest sticking points is the failure to achieve the level of adoption necessary for success, says Hackett’s Musgrove.

“Some initiatives have completely stalled and are points of frustration for the executive sponsors and key business stakeholders,” he says, noting that companies are now realizing that adopting new digital technologies requires significant organizational change. “Effective change management enables businesses to overcome resistance, streamline processes, and minimize negative impacts during the transition.”

But change management is often misunderstood as an item to tick off a project to-do list, says NCC’s Fox. “The key here is to get into the detail and remove the blockers through a deep understanding of business and customer challenges, and over communicate,” she advises. “Nobody should have the excuse as to why they didn’t know what was coming or what their role is.”

In fact, says Betzig, change management skills are only the half of it; what’s needed is change leadership. “Change management has the connotation of being reactive: managing something that has to be done,” Betzig says. “Change leadership is more about proactively influencing the business to grow. It’s large-scale thinking.”

Charlton and other leaders at Merchants Fleet have created processes for training, incentivizing, and empowering every employee to innovate and contribute to the company’s growth. Today, Merchants Fleet has more than 45 innovation coaches working with hundreds of team members across the company to identify ways to apply digital technologies and analytics to improve key business outcomes: cycle times, cost of ownership, driver safety, and the client experience. New solutions have begun flowing in, from finding ways to attract more talent in a tight job market to condensing the client onboarding process by more than 80%.

Strategizing for new opportunities

Many of the most important capabilities for driving continued digital innovation are decidedly nontechnical.