Last year, I asked the question, "Is Agile Leadership what we really need?” My conclusion was that Leadership is complex and a wide range of skills is needed – agility may be one of those. What is clear is that the significant differentiator of sustainably successful organizations is the caliber of their management and leadership. For the purposes of this article, I am going to use the term, “Leadership” in its populist form to mean, “Ensuring that the right things are done right by the right people at the right time” i.e., including “Management.”
What do we expect of leaders... in any era?
Each Leader should ensure that their organization:
- Is resourced with motivated and talented individuals who share a common vision, mission, strategy, and set of values;
- Focuses on satisfying stakeholder expectations to achieve its vision;
- Implements solutions, adjustments, and corrections at the earliest opportunity;
- Promptly elicits, responds to, and incorporates feedback;
- Monitors, measures and tracks the extent to which it is meeting stakeholder expectations;
- At all times, actively engages those best equipped to handle decisions, moving final decision making as close as possible to each issue.
How will the digital era affect leadership responsibilities?
So, what is the digital era doing to affect those requirements or how they can be best met? The digital era is presenting us concurrently with four revolutions in how we work:
We are seeing an expansion of process-support functionality in the major ERP systems, continuing growth in Best of Breed software applications, and an explosion in the number of SaaS solutions.
These go way beyond automating former manual processes and often focus on enhancing the quality of data and the decisions made with it. We have seen this, for example in recruitment, performance related pay, time and absence management, etc. Leaders in the digital era need to understand the power of contemporary technology and take the lead on such automation. All too often, tools are created by immensely talented IT experts … who often do not know or understand the semantics of the processes they are automating, or the ripple effects of what they design. Some of the challenges to the power of the large internet organizations, especially social media, are testament to this.
Leaders need to understand that use of technology typically goes through three phases:
- Using new technology to replicate existing processes. This rarely works as existing processes always have compromises forced on them by being manual.
- Using new technology to do what it does best (using its naked power). This rarely works as those who created the new technology often do not have our goals in mind. So, we end up with technology that does things that we don’t need doing, or don’t need doing how it does them.
- Using the power of the new technology to achieve the goals of the process. Leaders in the digital era are going to have to learn how to skip those first two cycles. They need to be advising IT and/or Procurement on what they need, rather than accepting the most popular or cheapest solution.
Leaders in the digital era need to keep up to date on advances in analytics. Analytics tools can take apparently disparate data and rapidly turn them into intelligence that can inform leaders and their decision making abilities
So, leaders in the digital era will need to keep up to date on the power of contemporary technology so that they can identify where and how best to deploy it e.g.,
- Use of sensors, transducers, and positioning (e.g., GPS) devices to identify routings, connections, and equip individuals to interact with and intervene in processes;
- Data validation to prevent poor quality data entering a system;
- Process routing to ensure that the correct steps are followed by the right people at the right time;
- Adaptive routing, modifying routing based on new data and even escalating processes by exception;
- Analyzing, interpreting and reporting, including using visualisation to “bring data alive.”
The use of behavioral triggers, reinforcers and inhibitors through gamification, user interfaces, and data validation, etc. is now equipping organizations to drive particular patterns of behavior e.g., through Performance Management, Engagement, Talent Management processes and systems.
This is one of the most exciting and potentially rewarding areas of research and one that leaders in the digital era must keep up with. If they don’t, then a wholly undesirable set of behaviours may be triggered … or, perhaps, already has been!
Social media tools for networking, communications, collaboration, ideation, decision making, etc are now equipping virtual groups to connect, interact and complete tasks without ever meeting or even seeing each other.
Social media has unlocked communication. However, whilst that has great benefits, it also has serious limitations. Leaders in the digital era need to be well informed on the latest trends and how these are impacting their areas of their organizations.
Some of the benefits of these tools are:
- Ability to connect and communicate quickly and easily with multiple people, across time zones, geography, etc;
- Ease with which to locate and connect with other people when you need them;
- Increased knowledge and understanding of a much wider range of people and roles than face to face communication would ever facilitate.
Some of the downsides include:
- Distractions and disruptions to work in hand;
- These tools enable extensive connections. But, early indications are that they do not help to build strong relationships;
- Attention spans are rapidly declining and you can never be sure if the other person/people is paying attention to you;
- It appears that it is much easier to be critical, harsh, even rude, when using social media rather than face-to-face communications;
- Many of these tools do not enable users to convey emotions or emphasis. Consequently, the volume of data being exchanged has increased exponentially but there is a question mark over whether the sharing of understanding has increased.
Artificial Intelligence (AI)
This is actually a misnomer - the term AI has now been redefined by popular usage to encompass a wide range of analytical functions, most of which are not AI. The most likely to affect day-to-day work is “Predictive Analytics.” In simple terms, this is analyzing existing data to identify potential causal relationships and then to develop algorithms that can be applied to data (existing and/or new) to predict outcomes.
Leaders in the digital era need to keep up to date on advances in analytics. These tools can take apparently disparate data and rapidly turn them into intelligence that can inform leaders; decisions.
e.g., analyzing 360 degree feedback assessments and correlating them with performance, attrition, absence, turnover, etc in the feedback recipients’ areas - to identify the leadership and management behaviors that appear to lead to positive outcomes;
For instance, analyzing the correlations between short term absences, delayed connection to routine tools, growing InBoxes, etc. can help predict potential attrition and poor performance.
Leaders in the digital era need to understand the effects that new technology is having on the relationships between their staff, how those staff work, and ultimately on the quality of their area’s operations
Is the digital era going to make leadership easier or even redundant? I very much doubt it! New technologies bring exciting opportunities. But all of these have potential side-effects. So, in summary, Leaders in the Digital Era, need to:
Keep abreast of the power of contemporary technology;
- Identify how best to exploit that power, and avoid any negative side effects;
- Understand the effects that new technology is having on the relationships between their staff; how those staff work; and ultimately on the quality of their area’s operations;
- Actively engage with contemporary data analysis, interpretation, reporting and visualization tools;
- Work actively with their staff to ensure that robust working relationships are still created, sustained and called upon for support.
Who was it that said that computers would put us all out of work? It looks as though that day will be a long time coming.