Forward Thinking: Digital IDM - Filling the knowledge gap

Mike Cornwell: chief executive of the Institute of Direct and Digital Marketing
Mike Cornwell: chief executive of the Institute of Direct and Digital Marketing

Marketers who reached senior positions before the digital revolution must be honest enough to admit the shortfalls in their skills and know-how, and brave enough to do something about it.

The Oxford English Dictionary definition of 'education' is a form of learning in which knowledge, skills, and habits are transferred from one generation to the next through teaching, training or research. This means that passing information down to the next generation is the way it's always been.

However, during the past decade, 21st-century, technology-driven, accountable marketing completely changed the dynamic required for this transfer to occur effectively: and passing up to previous generations of the community simply didn't work.

The first group of 'digital natives', those who grew up through the late 90s and early 00s boom and bust and boom again, shaped the future we find ourselves in. They founded the coolest 'newcos'. They forged derivatives as the industry developed, then re-forged new ones. They continue to help shape our collective future. The new kids arrive at the doors of these first digital natives already highly knowledgeable about and inculcated in digital. Online sources of knowledge serve as their inspiration and education, every fresh major technology and platform adopted or trialled, used or discarded.

Since then, with each generation that enters the marketplace, the cycle of education being passed down begins again. Here, however, is the conundrum: who has passed all this knowledge up to the previous generations of marketers? For many senior staffers, it's been a case of trying to grab on to the coat-tails of the new while clinging to all the old skills and techniques that have been superseded by new media.

However, held back by a chronic lack of time and an inability to practise alongside more junior colleagues, many senior marketers have struggled to learn or fully understand the required skills and knowledge.

The evidence of this is visible in many industries where the pace of change was not understood by entire businesses, and not just marketing: music, publishing, retail anyone? The consequence is that currently, many 35 to 55-year-old marketing leaders, practitioners and decision makers - client and agency - are able to understand only conceptually some of the many aspects of 'digital' and how they operate and interact in the joined-up, modern marketing world.

How, then, with the plethora of choice available and significant gaps in knowledge, can these people make the right calls on critical business, data management, marketing and budget decisions? Is it time to stop trying to save face and admit that they must get a 21st-century marketing education? Becoming the one who's unafraid to admit his or her knowledge gaps and making a plan to fill them might well prove to be not just career-enhancing but career-saving; the key to continued progress in the industry.

Imagine the improvement in confidence that genuine understanding brings, that only professional learning and education can provide. Think about the confidence you'd need to lead your clients, colleagues and business partners. You should also consider the ability to make fully informed decisions through interrogating what you've been told or sold.

Knowledge gaps don't exist just in the breadth and depth of professional skills required in a marketing career. There's a whole host of accompanying people skills and business practices needed alongside the marketing practitioner's arts. Time management, team working, budgeting and commercial, line management, matrix management, presentations and disciplinary procedures - the list goes on. The current generation of marketers has more on its collective plate in all these regards than any before it.

The prevailing economic situation is unlikely to improve for a while. The chase for more return from less outlay won't stop. Both mean that there is less and less time for marketers to learn and develop. Nonetheless, the mission must be to keep learning, to keep developing professionally, to demonstrate to your bosses, or whoever appraises your performance, that professional learning is crucial to your ability to perform and provide the value they expect in return for the salary and benefits they provide.

Education has traditionally passed down the generations, but in this online-dominated world, there's a need to pass knowledge up, from digital natives to more-senior, established marketers.

Knowledge gaps among those who reached senior positions before the digital revolution are inevitable and varied. If they are to continue making critical business decisions, it's crucial those gaps are filled.

Continuous learning should be every marketer's mission. Tough economic conditions and the relentless pace of constant change mean we have to continually adapt in order to thrive - no matter what our position on the career ladder.

Mike Cornwell is chief executive of the Institute of Direct and Digital Marketing

Read more Forward Thinking essays

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