Learning & Development

Innovating in the Digital Divide: 3 Imperatives for Executives in a Post-COVID-19 World

The pandemic highlighted a digital inclusion problem in the United States that has put those without connectivity skills and access at a severe disadvantage. Both private and public sectors must take a more active stance on how innovation, corporate responsibility, diversity, and social inclusion are closely linked—and find solutions to bridge the digital divide for those most in need.

Recently, we recognized the 1-year anniversary of the start of the pandemic lockdown and the tumultuous developments of the past 12 months. Looking back on the countless strategy conversations we’ve had—both internally and with our clients—it is clear that the pace and growth of digital transformation have been unprecedented during this time and that the direction and scale of transformation are spanning multiple capabilities.

Over the past year, companies have taken a holistic approach to pandemic recovery centered on winning at the digital game. They have initiated operational changes, mobilized a virtual workforce, and addressed challenges in digitization while addressing long-standing issues of gender and racial inequality. At the EY organization, we’ve seen our clients initiate several years of transformation initiatives in just 2 to 3 months. Yet, while businesses may have become more connected than ever before, a “digital everything” working world has put many at a disadvantage. Achieving consistent digital inclusion will require intentional focus from business leaders in order to provide equal opportunities for those who are being held back.

It would be an understatement to say that most leaders are facing fundamental and new challenges, strategies, and initiatives that were not even contemplated a few months ago. As the fog starts to clear and we navigate the new terrain, a short list of strategic imperatives seems to emerge.

  1. Acknowledging that stakeholder expectations have been reset and that digital transformation is no longer a rare innovation—it is here to stay

As a result of the heightened need to transform because of the past year, business stakeholders now expect greater efficiency, predictive insights, and digital innovation, but many have also become less patient with the typical pace of progress. Employees and customers now expect new digital experiences that make it easier for them to provide value at work and to engage with businesses in more personal and efficient ways. Everything from applying for unemployment benefits to purchasing a new home is expected to transform completely with emerging digital technology. As routine manual tasks are automated, employees will shift their time to driving insights and predictive analytics with creative use of expanded data solutions.

While more people are realizing the benefits of these digital experiences, others are being left behind. As the digital divide continues to expand, the negative impacts are also becoming more severe and farreaching: children unable to participate in a virtual school setting; businesses adapting to new digital standards and leaving employees and customers lacking the technical ability to engage; and not enough skilled talent for the jobs of the future coming into the market to keep pace with demand.

However, digital transformation is here to stay and will continue to define table stakes for businesses in the new era. For example:

  • Intelligent automation is projected to replace up to 30% of manual processes in most offices today.
  • Virtual agents will augment the customer experience, reducing costs and time spent on routine calls.
  • Document intelligence automates interpretation of written correspondence, such as invoices, contracts, and payment orders.

To lead in this new era, businesses need to develop strategies and execution plans to meet these expectations and to create robust operating models that address the evolving challenges of the digital divide.

  1. Recognizing and helping to reduce the barriers to connectivity that impact many stakeholders

Solving the digital divide is complicated and manifests in different ways for different stakeholders. The cost of broadband access and devices such as laptops is out of reach for many families, and high-speed Internet is scarce in rural areas. About two-thirds of U.S. public school students are doing at least some of their classes from home, yet more than 157 million people were not using the Internet at broadband speeds as of 2019. As for computers, many low-income students received them only halfway through the year, further slowing their learning. The lack of access to technology has also made remote work particularly difficult for low-income families. The disparity in digital access is glaringly obvious when looking at the results of a 2019 Pew Research Center survey that shows 82% of white adults in the United States own a desktop or laptop computer compared with only 58% of black and 57% of Hispanic adults.

To complicate this situation further, many organizations took advantage of the pandemic and have pivoted to offering more virtual services and to developing digital operating models at an unprecedented pace. Doctors are consulting with patients virtually, banks are selling homes online, and even restaurants are offering delivery through mobile apps. Virtual is good, but what happens if the people who need services do not have access to digital tools or devices? How do people submit a résumé for a new job, fill in an unemployment application, or complete their expanding workplace tasks without a computer or mobile device?

With many large employers laying the foundation for a permanent shift to a remote working environment, a strict adherence to diversity and inclusion planning needs to be a component of the digital shift. For example, how can companies improve equity as part of their recruiting process? If certain students don’t have access to technology, how can business leaders find ways to offer differing, but equitable, educational opportunities?

While no one business can solve this problem alone, we can all play a part in supporting coalitions and solutions that make a material and lasting impact.

  1. Engaging in mentorship and digital skills training to prepare the leaders of tomorrow

At the EY organization, we believe that distance learning is only effective if a household has three key components available: connectivity, hardware, and relevant mentoring in digital readiness and future skills. Students who meet regularly with mentors are 52% less likely than their peers to skip a day of school and 37% less likely to skip a class.[1]

At both national and local levels, we not only are working to facilitate access to connectivity and hardware for underserved students but also have developed a virtual mentoring approach that addresses students’ immediate needs, such as navigating the digital education world, applying for college, or preparing for a job.

“Companies face a ‘trifecta’ of challenges in health, economic, and racial justice, and EY is helping bridge the digital divide,” Dr. Sonja Santelises, CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools, recently commented about our approach to address the issue.

The EY Bridging the Digital Divide initiative embraces a “Now, Next, and Beyond” strategy that applies our consulting acumen, with an eye toward social inclusion. “Now” focuses on working with other organizations to support students, families, and educators to provide digital devices and broadband access. “Next” is a stabilizing phase in which virtual mentorship creates a path to training and future life readiness skills that can be elevated to transform communities for the “Beyond.”

How can you evolve your training, recruiting, and social impact strategies to develop the next generation of employees and customers?

It’s time for more leaders to embrace digital transformation while driving positive social impact through supporting programs that provide access and opportunities to those who face digital challenges. There is enormous untapped potential in the leadership and workforce of the future. If we can connect with underserved students at a younger age; mentor them along their paths; and, in the end, prepare them to lead, we can go a long way toward bridging the digital divide and building a better working world.

Kevin Brown is the EY Digital Business Transformation and Intelligent Automation Principal – Americas Digital Divide Consulting Lead. The views expressed by the author are not necessarily those of Ernst & Young LLP or other members of the global EY organization.

[1] https://www.mentoring.org/mentoring-impact/