Building a Culture of Digital Fluency for Innovation and Growth

Digital fluency and product innovation

A few weeks ago I was speaking with a prospective client who had recently sold his consulting firm to a larger, global firm. He wanted help persuading the parent company to invest in growing a niche SaaS product that his team created. He was frustrated by the parent company’s inability to understand why it would be useful to supplement their consulting services with this SaaS product. At one point in the conversation, I asked him to drop a hyperlink into the chat. He said, “I don’t know how to do that.” 


I almost fell off my chair.


How can we expect anyone to take us seriously about the need to tech-enable/digitize/ productize (choose your term!) our offerings if we do not know how to use the most basic technology? And I wish, almost three years after COVID, that not knowing how to use the chat function on video conferencing applications was an extreme example. It's not.


Senior leaders’ digital proficiency and, ideally, digital fluency, is so important to productization that it’s built into the assessment my firm conducts when we start working with new clients. But I often get questions about what kind of digital fluency organization leaders need when it comes to productization. In this blog, I will: 

  • Define what we mean by digital fluency;
  • Explain why it's so important for professional services leaders; and
  • Offer suggested ways to build digital fluency into your organizational culture 


Although professional services leaders don’t need the skills to build new technology-enabled tools, they should have the digital fluency needed to imagine how the organization might be able to apply those digital tools to create new solutions. While leaders don’t have to be the most tech-savvy people in the room, they need to know more than the basic functions of the team’s digital platforms–they need to know enough to talk about the tools and to facilitate conversations around the opportunities they present. 


Defining Digital Fluency 

We define digital fluency as a step beyond digital proficiency. Proficiency is knowing how to use a tool for its stated purpose. It means using tools (like the chat function in Zoom) the way that they were intended to be used. Fluency goes a little beyond this–it means that you can do more than just use tech tools as intended; you can also see the different possibilities of those tools and think about how to use them most effectively.  A very simple example is can you imagine how new open AI tools such as ChatGPT help your organization create content for documentation, marketing, training, etc.? If not, you have some homework to do.


Digital fluency doesn’t require you to be as tech-savvy as your IT specialists. Digital fluency is not knowing how to code, but understanding enough about the code to think critically about its limitations, risks, and possibilities. It’s the ability to facilitate creative problem-solving using digital technologies. 


Why Digital Fluency is Important for Leaders at ‘Productizing’ Organizations

In a recent, post-Covid survey of B2B executives, Altimeter reports that "Low digital literacy or expertise among colleagues and leadership" was cited as a top three challenge in successfully digitally transforming by 22% of respondents (p.6).  And, according to HFS Research, enterprise leaders agree: 600 executives across Global 2000 enterprises consider improving the digital fluency of the workforce to be the number one change in their organization’s ways of working in the next 12 – 18 months. 

When leaders at B2B services organizations decide to use technology to better scale their services, digital fluency is a necessary ingredient. Digitally fluent leaders can better imagine how to use technology not only to become more efficient but also to:  

  • Create new products 
  • Acquire more clients
  • Extend services offered 


In her article, Coding Isn’t a Necessary Leadership Skill — But Digital Literacy Is,” Sophia Matveeva describes the ways that even companies whose products have little to do with technology need to be aware of the ways that tools like apps and AI can drive business and value. Matveeva describes the way that Starbucks is using its app-based loyalty program to drive sales and customer engagement. At present, 53% of Starbucks sales are driven by customers engaged with the app and its AI-based personalized customization, demonstrating why it’s imperative for company leaders to understand the way that tool can create and extend possibilities for the company. The same is true in the B2B services realm, leaders need to understand the possibilities for digital tools to enhance their current operations and their current value.   


Building Digital Fluency into Your Organization’s Culture 

Digital fluency is essential for organization leaders, but it’s also important for employees as well. To foster a culture of digital fluency, I suggest that my clients consider three useful strategies: model, upskill, and incentivize.

  • Model - One of the most important ways that leaders can demonstrate the importance of digital fluency is to model it. It is important for leaders to model the intentional learning that they expect of employees. 
  • Upskill -  If you’re expecting your employees to become digitally fluent, invest in the activities that will allow them to learn. Allocate resources such as time or training in helping them to move beyond proficiency.  Effective upskilling will look different from one organization to the next but will involve assessing employee needs, setting up effective training programs, and monitoring progress toward identified goals.  
  • Incentivize - You can also use incentives as a way to measure the time employees spend enhancing their digital skills and their fluency. When you do so, be sure to focus on behaviors that will enhance collaboration across teams, not just specific technical outcomes that tend to be less transferable. 


Digital fluency goes hand in hand with the behaviors that support product innovation and is an essential aptitude for product services leaders. It creates opportunities for organizations to drive value in accordance with strategic productization goals. 


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