A Five Stage Model for Digital Maturity

‘Digital maturity’ is another one of those phrases that has lost some of its meaning through over-use but since so many companies are undergoing some form of digital transformation I do think it useful to have some kind of framework for development. So what might the progression in digital competence look like?

The four stages of competence model (or ‘conscious competence’ learning model) used in Psychology to describe the psychological states involved in various stages of learning might be a good place to start. The model is typically used in the context of positioning individual learning and attainment of skill, but I think it is just as applicable to how an organisation (for a company is but a group of people) might learn and improve capability. Applied in the context of digital transformation, it progresses from unconscious incompetence through to unconscious competence thus:

Unconscious incompetence

At this initial stage, the organisation (or in the original model the individual) is not only unaware of how to effectively deploy digital technologies, they are also blissfully unaware of what they don’t or should know. In order to move on to the next stage, the company needs to first recognise the value of digital transformation, and the degree of stimulus or impetus to learn determines the amount of time spent at this stage.

Conscious incompetence

The company may not fully understand digital or how to deploy it but they are at least aware of their short-comings and of the value in developing new competencies to address the deficit. Experimentation and learning from failure becomes an important part of the learning process at this stage.

Conscious competence

By this stage, the company has developed competency in digital, but deployment or execution requires conscious effort, focused involvement, and likely planned, definitive steps.

Unconscious competence

A true ‘digitally-native’ organisation. Digital becomes second-nature, executed easily, intuitively, allowing for greater efficiency and capability in execution. 

What I like about this model is that it progresses from unconscious (we don’t know what we don’t know) to conscious (we know what we do know and what we don’t know) to innate (we know it so well it is intuitive). 

The Dreyfus Model for skills acquisition takes this a stage further, with five distinct stages of learning - novice, competence, proficiency, expertise, and mastery. From the Wikipedia entry:

“In the novice stage, a person follows rules as given, without context, with no sense of responsibility beyond following the rules exactly. Competence develops when the individual develops organizing principles to quickly access the particular rules that are relevant to the specific task at hand; hence, competence is characterized by active decision making in choosing a course of action. Proficiency is shown by individuals who develop intuition to guide their decisions and devise their own rules to formulate plans. The progression is thus from rigid adherence to rules to an intuitive mode of reasoning based on tacit knowledge.”

In this model, the same progression from unconscious incompetence to unconscious competence takes place, and as the company (or, in the original model, the student) becomes skilled, there is less dependency on abstract principles and more on real-world experience. So in the context of digital transformation, the stages of competence look like this: 

1. Novice 

The company follows established rules, including those that have been created for specific circumstances without any contextual adaptation, and feels no responsibility for outcomes

2. Advanced beginner

As experience grows, new 'situational' elements come into play meaning that rules can be applied to specific and related conditions. But decisions are still made through the application of rules, all aspects of work are treated separately, and with little prioritisation or responsibility taken.

3. Competence 

At this stage the numbers of rules increase, perhaps to the point where we need to adopt organising principles, or specific and particular perspectives. So relevance of information becomes more important, decision-making then becomes active, planning more deliberate, and so implying more responsibility for choices and decisions.

4. Proficiency

By now, the company is able to take a more holistic view of a situation, better understand contexts, prioritise the importance of particular aspects, note deviations from norms, employ guiding principles and adapt to the situation at hand. Diagnosis of situations is becoming more intuitive but conscious decision-making is used in the formulation of plans, and real-world previous experience can inform decisions. 

5. Mastery/Expertise

Digitally-centric approaches are second-nature, there is a strong vision of what is possible, there is an intuitive grasp of situations based on deep, tacit understanding but analytical approaches might be used in new situations or contexts. Decision-making is intuitive, with no need to deconstuct situations into discrete elements to understand them, the company does what works, pattern recognition might extend to the plan as well as the diagnosis.


Stubborn on Vision, Flexible on Details

Jeff Bezos once said:

“We are stubborn on vision. We are flexible on details…. We don’t give up on things easily. Our third-party seller business is an example of that. It took us three tries to get the third-party seller business to work. We didn’t give up.” 

If you’re not stubborn, you’ll give up on experiments too soon. And if you’re not flexible, you’ll pound your head against the wall and you won’t see a different solution to a problem you’re trying to solve.”

Many organisations are now recognising the value in more iterative, experimental, adaptive ways of working in response to rapidly changing competitive contexts, customer expectations and technologically-driven possibilities, but this can frequently raise questions around direction. If we spend all our time iterating our way towards our future (so the question goes), where is our strategic direction? And how can we make the kind of creatively-driven leaps forward that change the game and enable us to leap-frog the competition? 

The answer to this lies in the right balance between the directional guidance given by a compelling longer-term vision and the flexibility enabled through highly adaptive and responsive approaches and ways of fulfilling that mission. Iteration and experimentation without vision is chaotic. Rigidly pursuing a plan without adaptiveness leads to declining performance, missed opportunities, limited learning. Stubborn on vision, flexible on details. 

Creativity in Business

This, from The Book of Life:

"...business creativity is a little different from artistic creativity. A company is a group of individuals gathered together to solve a problem for other people. This helps to define what the true focus of business creativity should be: intense and lateral thinking about what could be missing from the lives of customers. Business creativity means skill at identifying and profitably meeting the needs (many of them unspoken and vague) of customers. Everything else – the factories, the technology, the logistics, the spreadsheets – is in a sense secondary to this aim; whatever efforts are subsequently lavished on execution, a business cannot succeed if it hasn’t zeroed in on a real, that is, sufficiently urgent, human requirement."

Visual Cues, Habits and Motivation


My first job after University (which was actually a Polytechnic if you can remember back when there were such things) was selling space in recruitment directories. There was a recession on at the time (hence very few jobs for graduates with non-vocational degrees) and I kind of fell into it. But in many ways I think it was the best start I could have had. It was a telesales job, cold-calling businesses, selling them advertising space. I had to make at least 80 calls a day in order to reach a daily target minimum of 20 effective phone calls (ones that reached a decision-maker). I learned about how to persuade. I learned about persistence, I learned about the importance of listening. About matching benefits to needs. I learned how to sell. It's a skill that I think is fantastically useful.

One of the things that stuck with me from that time was how we always had visual representations of bookings and targets up on the wall. You could see, as every booking was made, the target coming ever closer and closer. It was hugely motivating. And I was reminded of this when I read this short piece on the power of visual cues in building and maintaining good habits. It's so true. And it makes me wonder why, when we have access to so much data now, companies don't use this more (beyond obvious vertical functions) in the service of creating simple visualisations to enable staff to see progress toward a specific objectives. Such a simple thing, and yet so powerful.