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If you’re a 40-plus business leader who’s long realized your parents will never quite get the hang of computers or smartphones, consider that millennial employees might feel the same way – with business leaders as the object of amusement or exasperation.

I’ll use the Canadian market as an example. Recent research by Oxford Economics and SAP revealed significant friction between leaders and employees in Canada over the digital effectiveness of their business. The global study of 4,100 professionals found that 85% of leaders in Canada believe they and their peers use technology effectively to get an edge in their market, yet only 33% of their employees feel the same.

Surprisingly, only 39% of leaders said their business decisions are data-driven, but the figure rose to 91% for employees. It didn’t go unnoticed that the Canadian statistics were way out of line with other leading economies, where there was generally much closer agreement between leaders and employees.

This left me wondering; why are leaders in Canada so sure of their digital aptitude, and why do their employees have so little faith in them? There are a number of possibilities, all of which could be contributing to the friction.

It’s possible that leadership teams in Canada have not quite grasped or appreciated what digital transformation is or exactly what it takes – at least not in a way their concerned employees feel confident in. Canadian businesses are known for their conservatism, and there’s been little evidence to suggest they are significantly bucking that trend with digital transformation (IDC Canada research last year found only 17% had a full digital plan).

On the other hand, it could be that leaders have created solid digital transformation plans, but haven’t communicated them well to their employees. If employees are left in the dark about a company’s digital direction, whether it exists or not, there’s not much to give them hope.

It could also be that digital-native millennials – who are much less likely to be leaders at this point – just have a much more natural understanding of how a digital business could and should work today. They have the advantage of not having to unlearn the analog business processes their bosses learned 20 years ago, and were engrossed in the ways of doing things digitally from a young age.

Consider that only 3% of senior leaders surveyed in Canada by Oxford Economics were millennials, compared to 17% globally. It’s not so hard to imagine the army of non-senior Canadian millennials nervously observing those less ‘with it’ Gen X bosses as they scratch their heads over digital transformation.

The millennials may think they could do a better job of digitally transforming the business themselves. If anywhere close to 91% of them are already making data-driven business decisions compared to only 39% of their bosses, they could have a point.

In the meantime, if you’re worried your customer’s leadership teams might look to their millennial employees how your father looked to you the first time you saw him trying to send a text message, what can you do about it?

First, help them effectively communicate their company-wide digital vision with all employees (if they have one. If they haven’t, they need to get one). Then ask them to consider if they’re bringing in the talent needed to give this digital vision the best chance of coming to fruition.

Flattening the organization can help senior leaders in Canada bring those digital-savvy millennials (of which we know there is an abundance in the country) closer to the conversations that matter, educating the boardroom in the process. Encourage them to listen to their young leaders and have more faith in them to help shape the future of the organization. It might just save their blushes, and their business.

Learn more about the findings of Oxford Economics’ Leaders 2020 report.

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  1. Paul Hardy

    I am coming up to 50, and like to think I have a very clear grasp on new technology. I write books on the subject. Though of course some older people do not like computers at all.

    Meanwhile, some of the 20 year old people, who do indeed spend 91% of their life with their head stuck looking at their smartphone, do not seem to have a clue about IT in a business context. Though of course some do.

    So it is not totally accurate to make broad brush statements about people being useless based upon their age.

    You could turn your headline around and ask – are the business leaders laughing at the millennials arrogance and incompetence? That would be just as unfair.

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