The Role of Digital Leadership

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    Thursday30Nov 2017
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    Guest blog by Philip Baulch, CIO, Major Business and Public Sector, BT as part of our #CounciloftheFuture campaign

The world around us continues to change at an ever increasing pace and in much less predictable ways than we could have ever imagined. It’s sobering to stop for 30 seconds and consider the role digital technology plays compared with just two years ago. Think about how it’s changed how you work, travel, play and collaborate. Think about how you feel about that.

One thing we can be certain of is that this progress won’t stop. It will be relentless and whether you like it or not is fairly immaterial – what you need to deal with is that digital transformation is happening everywhere and you will have to have a position on it.

Are you one of the front runners using the latest of everything leading the way? Or a tech laggard wondering how long you can hold off because you don’t have the skills, budget or organisational appetite to take the plunge? You are almost certainly somewhere in-between. The challenge is how you embrace the opportunity that digital brings because digital transformation does not come easy. It’s hard and complex and risky.

Mix with this the fact that there are challengers all around you (people and organisations) in both the public and private sector and personally. People who are dreaming up radical changes to the way people can work; the way their employees can work; the way their organisation can engage with customers and citizens; the way they use the power of information and access. If you don’t feel left behind today then you should be just as worried as if you think you are.

The problem is that embracing digital costs time, mental capacity, money and other resources (both quantity and access to key skills). This said, the drive to cut cost is relentless. Everyone wants their IT cost and IT organisation to be smaller. The fastest route is using traditional methods, such as standard frameworks; breaking up contracts; supply chain consolidation; moving everything to the cloud; labour arbitrage; the use of consumer-grade IT and network.

The only problem is, that driving this agenda won’t digitise customer channels; it won’t mobilise workforce; it won’t allow you to connect everything and to embrace the opportunities brought from everything being connected; it won’t allow you to leverage the sharing and use of data to be smarter; or to become more flexible and adaptive; or to get closer to your end users to be more relevant and purposeful.

All it will do is disaggregate technology and drive a lower IT cost.

The irony is that embracing digital is actually the route to fundamentally changing the way an organisation works, including step-changing the cost. In fact, there isn’t any other way. It’s just we have to work out how to get started. If we want to mobilise our people, engage our citizens or customers digitally and transform our business to run off of insight – we will have little choice but to embrace it.

So how do you to break the cycle of lower budgets; wrong skills; less recourse; less appetite for risk and failure - and move forward with conviction of an embedded and supported digital transformation journey. Two key ingredients are needed. Two sides of the same coin.

The first is strong leadership. Leadership that believes the fundamental medium-term future is in a digital world and taking incremental steps to cut cost is counter-productive.

Just seeing technology as a cost will just get us to a lower cost case. Deciding to jump into digital transformation means starting with a really clear position on how an organisation will work in the new world. Which brings me to the second point.

The second point is strong leadership. Leadership that can articulate what you are aiming for and how you will get there. This is really important because 80% of digital transformation is about culture change and not about technology change. Which brings me back to having a strong leadership in place. It’s not that one cannot build a technology roadmap for digital transformation – I’m pretty sure you can.

Earlier in this blog I asked you to think about the role technology plays today compared with 2 years ago. I wonder how many of us actually do that. Because right now is the time.

The point is if we don’t embrace it now, we will only feel isolated and victimised. That’s why, if one decides to drive the digital transformation, it has to start with culture. Otherwise, you can’t set out on a journey hoping to open the champagne in two years. Whether you have succeeded will be more about the culture in your organisation than whether you’ve implemented a load of technology properly.

Those who get diverted by short-term decision-making will not digitally transform. Neither will those who use technology roadmaps that are not created off the back of business and culture-led outcomes. To give my reader a simple example, mobilising a workforce requires technology but more than that it requires a change in attitude towards working in a mobile always-on way.

Digital leadership is about having a clear single-minded vision that properly leverages the opportunity from the digitisation of everything; along with a stubbornness to not yield to the short-term; as well as an uncompromising attitude towards setting out on a path directed by culture instead of technology.

These are not normally qualities people look for in an organisation but times have changed. Culture change has to be radical to keep up and keep ahead. Things will not slow down, they can only get faster.

Life will feel very different in two years’ time.

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