Humans and digital technology are now partners, with important implications for the style of leadership needed to manage the collaboration. In a reimagined workforce, leaders are skilled in enabling both, so soft skills are elevated as key success factors.

As deeply embedded as technology has become in organizations, humans are still needed (and always will be), no matter how sophisticated technology gets. A strong focus in leadership development has been on integrating technology to perform certain functions to streamline operations and increase productivity, but this focus tends to ignore the other half of a collaborative partnership – people. Humans and technology work together, but it is humans that must succeed within the context of the organization’s culture and leadership’s ability to guide a future-ready workforce. Leaders need technical and soft skills that include developing a positive supporting organizational culture that does not dehumanize people with technology, effective employee-employer communication, and the ability for employees to fully utilize their capabilities through ongoing skills development.


Humans are working side-by-side with robots, assuming higher-level work as routine tasks are automated, and regularly adapting to new and/or upgraded technologies. As technology continues to advance with the increasing adaptation of sophisticated options like artificial intelligence, managers and frontline supervisors have faced the challenge of staying current on the technologies that impact their areas. In the employee-technology partnership, a reimagined workforce is needed that enables employees to do their work better. What jobs will humans do versus technologies? What jobs need both humans and technology collaborating? But technology impacts more than specific jobs. Developing productive human-machine collaborations means the organizational culture, communication systems, and skills development processes must adapt. There is a risk that when technology is added without addressing the impact on humans, employee engagement declines.

Leadership soft skills have always been important, and they are even more important in a work environment where people and technology are partners and digital communication is the norm. Jobs requiring pure technical skills and no social skills are rare. People need to work in a supportive culture and have the ability to communicate well. Fei-Fei Li, Sequoia Professor in Computer Science Department at Stanford University who served as Chief Scientist of AI/ML at Google Cloud during a sabbatical, says concerning AI, “there is nothing ‘artificial’ about this technology – it is made by humans, intended to behave like humans, and affects humans.” She believes leaders must understand the impact on humans to achieve goals in areas such as diversity, engagement, and digital fluency.


Accenture defines digital fluency as an “integrated framework measured by your digital workforce’s technology quotient (TQ) + digital operations + digital foundations + digital leadership and culture.” Digital fluency is not just working with technology. It is a development process in which people build on technological foundations, but the challenge for leaders is that employees bring different approaches to their work. This means that training leaders in technology skills for a one-size-fits-all workforce ignores digital leadership’s human skills and culture as major elements (half the TQ formula). For example, an employee who is a ‘remote collaborator’ needs help understanding how digital technologies add value to work, and learn from others, and they want a learning roadmap for building skills. An employee who is a ‘disciplined achiever’ prefers to work in cross-functional teams, to see how digital technologies enable various organizational parts and needs clear goals. The ‘adaptive team player’ wants a cohort learning model and being matched with innovators. The ‘relentless innovator’ wants a strong technology infrastructure and tools and the opportunity to lead digital pilot projects.

Increasing digital fluency involves more than just teaching people digital skills. The skills development is only one step. Accenture developed a four-part framework for digital fluency. One part is that the company provides up-to-date technologies, and second the use of information and digital technologies transforms the way people work. The third and fourth parts are people oriented. The third part, workforce technology quotient, is a measure of employee enthusiasm, value, and expertise concerning digital tools and technologies. The fourth element is shaping a culture of digital leadership. What does a culture of digital leadership mean? Leaders can develop new work structures, help employee roles and responsibilities evolve, and utilize digital tools to enable better knowledge sharing and collaboration. But this fourth aspect is often the one that fails to mature – leaders are trained to “communicate better, have greater empathy, and earn trust in a remote work environment.”

The top skills needed for a digital transformation are different than those needed in the past. Employees need to understand how their work fits into the organization mission and goals, and how the work integrates with other systems. Leadership needs empathy and emotional intelligence to understand what employees need, in order to be their most productive and contributory to organizational success. Managers and supervisors need skills in communication, coaching and how to develop the positive employee experience. Organizational leaders become influencers through trust building, coaching employees in a digital world how to work on cross-functional teams, how to manage continual change, and how to embrace technology as tools for success now and into the future.


Organizational leaders need the skills to guide and encourage employees who approach digital technologies differently, and to build an inclusive culture in which employees with different perspectives and needs can thrive. To future proof the workforce, it is necessary to develop learning pathways for employees that address current and future roles within a culture of continuous learning. Providing the right technology tools cannot be enough.

A survey of 1,700 executives in 90 countries in the banking industry revealed that leaders in the digital era need soft skills such as adaptability, curiosity, creativity, and comfort with ambiguity. They become catalysts for change and not change planners, meaning they create initial conditions for the organization to fulfill its ambitions, and then guide it in an experimental manner of continuous learning. They must co-create instead of waiting for top-down direction, by creating a culture in which employees feel safe in taking risks and letting employees share in decision-making. Leaders in the digital era should exercise influence and not command-and-control, building partnerships and curating talent by identifying and assessing capabilities, values, and mindsets. Nurturing employees who are digital natives and elevating promising talent helps them reach positions of influence.

In an organization that is either digitally transformed or undergoing a transformation, it is tempting to focus on the technologies. But technology does not operate in a vacuum. It takes people. Leadership soft skills are as important as hard skills, and sometimes more important to innovation. Nurturing the human-technology collaboration is key to developing a future-ready workforce.