Why Digital Transformation requires Leadership Transformation

Trust is in crisis. People distrust politicians, the media and business. And one of the key drivers of this distrust is the pace of innovation.

Along with globalisation, the erosion of social values, corruption and immigration, the pace of innovation and the sense of being either left behind by that innovation or living in a world that is unrecognisable and alienating drives voting behaviour, consumer behaviour and social unrest. And that affects your business too.

67% of Trump voters describe themselves as fearful (compared to only 45% of Clinton voters) and 54% of Leave voters describe themselves as fearful versus only 27% of Remainers.

It might be easy to dismiss these figures as unrelated to business and having nothing to do with your digital transformation programme. But to do so would be foolhardy.

A Bot wants your job

Digital transformation presents a great opportunity for business and is, in any case, inevitable. But there is also fallout. Inevitably jobs that can be done by Bots will be done by Bots. And while new jobs may be created there is no guarantee that those jobs will be done by the same people who were replaced by a computer. We’ve already seen how previous disruptions have left generations of families who had never worked. But the digital revolution doesn’t only threaten blue collar, low paid, low skilled jobs. Highly educated and experienced workers in your Procurement, Accounting, Call Centre, Customer Service, Project Management and Data Analysis departments (and their bosses) are all under threat.

Digital transformation is a technical change, for sure. But its success and the smooth transition to an organisation where people and AI work side by side and are able to leverage the advantages of each other, relies on the buy in of leaders. The very people you’re expecting to lead digital transformation are those whose relevance is under threat. And while a tuned in leader will be asking “What does Digital mean for my people?”, inside he’s also asking “What does Digital mean for me?”

These questions are easy to ignore. They come from a place of fear, a fear not shared by those who find technological innovation exciting and who believe their expertise to be indispensible in future.

But unless you address these fears head on you will find your digital programme derailed.

The business of the future must invest just as much consideration in to the future of its people as the future of its tech. Because there are certain jobs — those that require empathy, sensing, reading between the lines, negotiation, conflict resolution, innovating and imagination — that Bots will not be able to do. Not in the foreseeable future anyway.

And that’s where leadership comes in

Leaders need to ask themselves fundamental questions about their own role, the part their people will play in future and the responsibility of the business in society.

So obsessed are we with the mechanisation of business processes that it’s become habitual to treat our human resources this way too. We measure the number of hours they are in the office, the percentage of their time allocated to different projects, the number of days they take off sick. We place them in workplaces with few distractions so that they can be as productive as possible. We organise people in to teams with a manager who allocates work, sets deadlines, communicates targets and supervises the delivery on the work on time and on budget.

We acknowledge that our people have feelings but we try to minimise the impact of those feelings on their work so that they can be as efficient and machine-like as possible.

When I first started working as a coach for leaders before Facebook and Twitter and the Cloud I was often told proudly that being able to leave your emotions at the door and make decisions based purely on fact was the ideal state of Leadership. Today my reply is “So you’re saying a Bot could do your job?”

In an environment where the logical thinking is done by machines, the only work left for people is the non-logical work. And to access that we have to completely rethink how we organise people, how we manage them, how our workplaces look, how we measure impact and how we lead. To do this, leaders need to question everything they’ve taken for granted about how they organise their people, how they lead them and how the business impacts the culture in which we live.

6 Questions

Here are 6 questions that leaders need to ask when they realise that a digital transformation is also accompanied by a human transformation -

  1. The hierarchy works when you’re running an industrial style machine. But does it work when you need people to take initiative, innovate, collaborate across functions and think outside the box? Aren’t there better ways to organise people or for them to organise themselves?
  2. Managers are required when people are cogs in the wheel with clear deliverables, processes to follow and best practices to learn from. But are they required when people need to bug fix, be agile, be continually iterating and taking ownership for their own results? Don’t managers simply get in the way?
  3. Consensus is required when people are organised in to teams and can take the time to get buy-in or find the right answer together. But when digital exponentially increases the pace at which we need to work, where there are no “right” answers and where we need our human employees to be lateral thinkers doesn’t the need for consensus simply slow us down?
  4. Working hours, cubicles, holiday leave, objective setting and career plans all work fine when people are valued for their activity and where more time in the office and more responsibility means more return on investment for the company. But when your people are valued for their ideas, for their emotional intelligence and their ability to combine technical expertise with intuition, don’t all of these norms needs a review?
  5. Without managers, hierarchy, consensus or measuring activity, where does leadership come from? What does leadership even mean in this context? And what are the qualities we’ll require of leaders in such an environment?
  6. What is the responsibility of business towards not only its own employees but to the wider society that feels left behind by the pace of innovation? As we roll out digital transformation internally and as digital transforms our world, can business leaders ignore the divisive impact on society that is already creating fear, distrust and global instability?

The digitised workplace is not one devoid of people. It is not one where people are servants to the machine. It is one where people perform a vastly different role to the one they perform today, and where they and the machine are in partnership not conflict. Resolving the inevitable tensions, fears and risks of the journey to digital is something only human beings can do. And it requires true Leadership.

Blaire Palmer is a world authority on the future of leadership. Her 4th book, Punks in Suits, is due for publication in 2017. A former BBC Journalist, Blaire has spent the last 17 working with leaders in companies such as Airbus, Mattel, GSK, Roche, Danone and HP helping them rethink how they lead in fast-changing times.

To book Blaire for your next event please contact your preferred speaker bureau. To work with Blaire as a consultant or coach, please email blaire@thatpeoplething.com