How is Digital Changing Today’s Leaders?

Posted: 07/11/2017

Technology is changing the business landscape and how we behave as leaders. All information is being digitised – not just documents in office, but o...

Technology is changing the business landscape and how we behave as leaders. All information is being digitised – not just documents in office, but our social interaction, our whereabouts, our health information through wearables; with the Internet of Things even physical products are now wrapped in data – everything is connected. 

It’s also affecting our engagement with staff – employees use technology constantly and it’s changing both their behaviour and our interaction with them and raising some questions – do we always expect our staff to be ‘always on’ because technology enabled it? How do we manage email overload?  Should we be having a look at corporate policies? At the very least is it something we should train our staff in? And as ever, what do we do about social media?

We have powerful tools now to reach customers, stakeholders and even staff, but how do we avoid drowning in information? How do we manage the challenges of remote working? Is technology impacting authority and team dynamics?  It seems more and more that influence is the name of the game, not just externally, but internally.  This new digital world is more informal – it’s more about collaboration and transparency. It’s also much more short term.  And that’s why an increasing focus on leadership in Jersey is essential – the business world is changing and we need to change with it.

Technology is affecting the very nature of work

It’s not just about how technology affects what your workers do but what type of workers you actually need.  You will probably have heard about AI. To some AI sounds like science fiction (techies like to use sci-fi terms such as AI, robo-advisers, autonomous vehicles, etc.) but the problem with that is it can make people think it is sci-fi and won’t have an impact on them, whereas if you just call it software – which is what it is – then it is easier to conceive that it will have an impact on your given industry.

In anticipation of the new Blade Runner movie coming out this weekend I recently re-watched the first one, in which they forecast that by 2019 we would have AI ‘replicants’ who could act as workers, astronauts and even soldiers. However, what AI in 2017 actually looks like in most forms is ‘software robots’ that can open up Excel spreadsheets – not quite as thrilling as Ridley Scott’s vision!

So are robots going to take our jobs? Do a cursory search of the web and you’ll see a glut of doom and gloom stories about the impact of AI. The good news of course is that variety, volume and quality will increase and become cheaper –  but the bad news is it could leave a lot of people behind. How we deal with that challenge is the great one of our generation, and Jersey will face that. Millions of jobs have gone around the world in manufacturing and AI will soon start to affect professional services, which means it will impact us.

To address the productivity decline we have to invest in both Education and technology. Digital transformation sometimes results in machines or programs replacing manpower, but this doesn’t necessarily translate to job loss – you may need to revise some job functions or restructure departments. It’s time for all businesses to consider each employee’s real value rather than their particular function, and providing additional training will keep employees roles relevant.

AI could benefit Jersey professional services industries

In a place with low unemployment, population pressures and reducing productivity, AI could be the answer to take on more business without growing the workforce significantly, and to also move people up the value chain from admin roles to more interesting and better paid opportunities. We’ve been working closely with Jersey Finance and on their McKinsey review of the threats and opportunities of digitisation of the finance industry and AI will be a big focus in the months and years to come.

In terms of the importance of leadership in digital transformation, there is a big change already in the way organisations are making key judgments, forecasts, predictions and decisions. The challenge is sometimes to get the alleged experts out of the way, and teaching them to be a lot humbler and a lot more data driven. The other big change is that we now have access – again via technology, networks, and very powerful devices – to a worldwide body of knowledge and talent and skill. What we’re learning over and over is the truth of ‘Joy’s Law’, named for Bill Joy, one of the founders of Sun Microsystems, who said, “The smartest people work for somebody else.”

You can now articulate a problem you’re working on and float it up with a worldwide community of innovators and problem solvers that can work on it, make suggestions and give you very good results – you get them quickly and you get them from unexpected quarters.

Thinking that all the expertise that you need is in-house or that you know where to go to go get the expertise or the help for the big challenge that you’re working on—that’s a really dangerous assumption.   When you live on a small Island it’s a great opportunity to broaden your horizons and look outside your normal environment for answers.

It’s time to experiment

Another benefit of this change, is that it’s a lot cheaper these days with all this technology and all those accessible resources to engage in open innovation – to set a challenge and see what response you get inside and outside your organisation. It might be useful to find a part of your company that’s led by someone who’s a bit more comfortable working with technology and data, and set them a challenge on the understanding that experimentation, failure and learning are a good thing.

Successful corporate digital transformations start with the leadership embracing technology – not necessarily the bits and bytes but the potential of using it to improve your business. This sends a clear message to the rest of the organisation that the company is serious about implementing change. Digital transformation is often pushed to the IT department, but this is a mistake; the process impacts the entire business.

We need to develop expansive digital leaders 

There is a lot of talk these days about the agile leaders required to deliver digital transformation, and according to the IMD Business School they need 4 key characteristics –

  1. Humble: They are able to accept feedback and acknowledge that others know more than they do.
  2. Adaptable: They accept that change is constant and that changing their minds based on new information is a strength rather than a weakness.
  3. Visionary: They have a clear sense of long-term direction, even in the face of short-term uncertainly.
  4. Engaged: They have a willingness to listen, interact, and communicate with internal and external stakeholders combined with a strong sense of interest and curiosity in emerging trends.

In addition, they found that Agile Leaders exhibited three key behaviours helping them to successfully navigate disruptive environments. They were:

  1. Hyperawareness: They are constantly scanning internal and external environments for opportunities and threats.
  2. Making Informed Decisions: They make use of data and information to make evidence-based decisions.
  3. Executing at Speed: They are able to move quickly, often valuing speed over perfection.

They also found that Agile Leaders, those leaders who rated highly on the competencies and behaviours mentioned above, tended to significantly out-perform other leaders on measures such as work engagement and leadership effectiveness. As a leader, you’ll face people resistant to digital transformation. Defensiveness, company bureaucracy, and the inertia of existing processes are the most common obstacles executives and entrepreneurs encounter.

We need to educate staff on what digital transformation means and why it matters. We need to run change management workshops, and find case studies from elsewhere in the industry to illustrate the benefits. And we mustn’t try to digitise everything all at once. We must instead, start with small changes that are easier to swallow.

When reading up for this blog I came across the term ‘expansive leadership’ and realised that is the approach I have always admired and tried to adhere to. Expansive leaders are people who are avid continuous learners.

You may feel that digital is engulfing your business. You may find it daunting that there is no “done” in digital… but in the digital world, if you’re not a leader you risk becoming a victim of disruption – strong leadership throughout inevitable change is the answer.


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