A well-run business is like a car cruising down the highway. The road may not always be even, but the machine is designed to withstand minor shocks and keep moving smoothly. Sometimes, however, an unexpected change of environment catches the car’s “leadership” in the driver’s seat by surprise: the car hydroplanes, or hits black ice, or blows a tire. The situation is suddenly dire. In an instant, the superior vantage and planning of the executive behind the wheel is useless. The whole enterprise is at the whim of a changing, unpredictable circumstance down where the rubber meets the road.
In today’s business environment, a concerning percentage of the economy is heading toward a patch of black ice called the digital skills gap. This is the name by which we learning experts refer to the epidemic shortage of digital skills in both companies and the labor pool of job candidates. The digital skills gap already costs businesses money and productivity — $1.3 trillion annually in the U.S. — and is only growing in urgency. If skills training doesn’t become a priority among the nation’s executives, quite a few company drivers will soon be surprised at the lack of control they have over their vehicles.
The companies that avoid this fate will be the ones that embrace bottom-up leadership. This doctrine acknowledges that good insight is a type of leadership, no matter where it’s found on the organization chart. It is a manager being open to the wisdom of employees beneath her, and ground-level employees speaking up when something needs to change. Bottom-up leadership encourages communication between all nodes in the company hierarchy, which affords executives a clear and complete picture of the organization’s successes and needs. There’s a reason why modern cars devote entire computer systems to gathering data from the tires.
Front-line employees are the ones most likely to recognize a digital skills gap. They are the workers dealing with the digital tools that propel the business on a daily basis: customer relations management systems, point-of-sale software, project management, and so on. These aren’t the tools managers use to plan, recruit, and strategize, so top-down leadership may not notice when employees struggle along without proper training.
A lack of bottom-up leadership could be the reason that executives are failing to address the skills gap. According to a 2012 MIT study, executives pay lip service to the importance of digital optimization — 87% consider “digital transformation” a competitive opportunity — but in practice, only 46% invest in critically needed digital skills training. A stunning 4% offer training aligned with a digital strategy. This is an economy-wide dereliction of management.
It is up to the employees in the trenches, then, to make it known that productivity is being lost to incomplete skill sets. And it is the responsibility of executives to listen, and do something about it.
In good times, when a business is doing well and the competition is at bay, it doesn’t seem necessary to listen to the signals coming from the bottom of the totem pole. Companies can afford to label it “bottom-up leadership” and grant it an air of magnanimity. But when the tires start rattling, and the car starts careening, the trajectory of the whole operation depends on its most humble parts.
Jeff Fernandez is co-founder and CEO of Grovo, helping to educate the digital workforce with an end-to-end video training platform that delivers quality results in the shortest amount of time.