What’s wrong with digital leadership education?
I recently conducted research into the current options leaders have in respect of preparing for the digital age. In the main I have focused on educational options. Some of the more amusing pieces of advice include:
- Appoint a Chief Digital Officer (CDO).
- Create a digital strategy.
The first of these might be a good idea if you see digital as a branch of marketing. The second works well if you intend to treat the online and physical elements of your organisation as two distinct entities. It also helps if you occupy a market that operates at a pre-internet clock speed.
Master of Bygone Actions?
MBAs tend to follow a case study model where a specific event or approach suitable for a bygone era (in the digital age that includes yesterday) in a particular geo / sector is generalised into wisdom about the future. For example, GE was until recently a case study in how even industrial organisations can make the leap to the digital world, until it tripped and fell flat on its logo.
It begs the question, do the MBA faculties announce a product recall in such circumstances?
No. They let their alumni continue to architect their own ‘car crashes’. This is of course wrong for many reasons.
I believe such courses need to rely less on past certainties and more on interpreting future possibilities. Many faculties insist that you can only learn when and where it suits them. If you happen to need a digital ‘education injection’, or more likely a hydrant-hose combo, because your platform is burning ferociously, then having to wait four months isn’t good news.
Leadership education needs to be disrupted
More broadly we need to dispel the notion that digital leadership is a role. Or that it is a role vaguely related to new technology. Digital leadership means leadership in the digital age. An age where:
- New information technologies are redefining everything.
- Biotechnologies will make new information technologies look pedestrian.
- Increased global connectedness is giving rise to new levels of market turbulence.
- Where human cognitive capacity, if applied smartly, can yield real value.
- Where wisdom management is the new data management.
Clearly digital leadership is much more than an automated order management app or a mobile-responsive website.
Leaders in the digital age need to cultivate a strong sense of purpose (a quick fix, make your CSR page your corporate home page). They need to understand that talent management, or more specifically cognitive management, is their primary role.
Customers will follow those organisations that generate the most innovative/addictive experiences.
With the death of traditional strategy, leaders need to have a framework that turns chaos into value and competitive advantage in days and months, rather than years.
Clearly emerging technologies such as AI, blockchain and IoT have a role to play. But simply sprinkling them along your existing business processes will deliver little value if your industrial era business model is a ‘dead org walking’.
A fluid concept
Traditionally leadership lacked context. Whether the market was good or bad, or whether the organisation was under cyber attack or on fire, the same leadership team presided.
Different situations increasingly require a corresponding leadership blend.
The team that led the fast growth phase is rarely the team for the maturity phase. And given the increasingly polymodal nature of business models, running multiple concurrent lifecycles will become more common.
Unlike the industrial era, where if your business card stated you were a leader, woe betide those down the ranks that did not accept this without reservation. Today leadership must be earned. You may indeed have ‘leader’ embossed on your business card, but if you turn around and see that nobody is following you, then you will have to reassess your position.
Whilst the developing and the developed world is populated with people who turn up for work, where they can, purely for economic purposes, there is a small subset of people who do so because they see work as a path to mastery and an exercise in establishing how far they can stretch human performance. These people will in fact be the only ones employed in the next few years, as both blue and white-collar work become automated / algorithm-atised. This new breed of worker will be more discerning about who they work for. Leaders will increasingly have to earn the right to be the leader.
The new currencies
There are two new currencies / asset classes in the digital age, data and cognitive capacity. One might argue that human capital or even intellectual capital captures cognitive capacity. It’s true, but neither truly capture the extent to which raw brain power needs to be managed.
These asset classes have two prospective leaders, the CIO and the CHRO / HRD.
Though rarely do we see either in the senior executive team. Possibly this is ignorance on the executive team’s part, or that these roles have become bogged down in operational matters and thus are deemed irrelevant from a forward-thinking perspective. This leadership vacuum is perhaps one of the reasons for CDOs emerging from nowhere.
In any case, leading organisations in the digital age is not something that can be delegated or abdicated. Regulators, investors and analysts will likely form a view on this in coming years.
Digital as a term has been around for a long time and was once synonymous with IT. Today it is now the source of boardroom commotion.
Despite this we are generally seeing a lack of motion in respect of taking action. ‘Rabbit in headlights’ comes to mind. This combination of fear and frustration may well give rise to ‘digital fatigue’.
Buzzwords come and go, but the post-industrial age is here to stay. Smart leaders will recognise that the very nature of leadership has changed and will develop accordingly. The business schools need to upgrade their services to enable leaders, new and old, to make the necessary personal and organisational transformation.