Leading Digital Transformation — Why overcoming mental barriers towards new technologies is more important than overcoming technical barriers

Today I feel inspired to write this post about the gap I see growing between what is already possible from a technological standpoint today and what business leaders perceive as possible. This is especially important for business leaders who recently embarked on the digital transformation journey.

The skill gap trap

Let me explain what I mean by giving you a simplified example of a client I worked with this week, a CEO of a consulting business here in Hong Kong. This CEO is full of drive for growing his business. But he has one issue, which is very common. He defines himself as “not-tech-savvy”. Technology “is just not my thing” he said and he prefers to outsource technology related task to other “experts”. At first glimpse this seems like a clever choice. But these days this strategy is not necessarily the best one anymore. Why? Here is what happened:

The CEO hired “experts” for re-designing the company’s website including fancy features like booking, invoicing, marketing and so on. The website needed to be up and running at a certain date. It turned out these “experts” demanded a lot of money for their job, did not deliver the desired results and were not able to finish the job on time. My client ended up being frustrated and felt like he had no other choice but staying dependent on this supplier.

What my client did not know is, that he was not up to date about the latest technologies and how easily these can empower him and his business. The reason I’m bringing this up is that I’m under the impression that this seems to be true for the majority of all business leaders at this time, no matter if they are in charge of a small business or for a large Fortune 500 company.

So, what did we do? I introduced my client to a specific do-it-yourself website builder, a cloud based tool, which uses artificial intelligence (AI) for designing the website (including the fancy features). He was so excited to hear about this alternative that he chose to try it himself rather than to delegate this task to his staff. And guess what, it worked because of the fact that he is a quick learner and very open to new possibilities.

His excitement about being able to handle the new technology with the support of AI even more professionally than his “experts” in a fraction of time was limitless. He experienced a truly empowering breakthrough realization. His website was up and running after 3 days — in time for the upcoming milestone. It took him a few hours after work and a little bit of my tech-coaching to get the job done he never thought he would be able to do. He and technology now became friends. The website-experience is just the beginning.

Most importantly through this process the CEO turned his “technology is not for me” belief into an open and playful attitude towards new technologies. Finally, a whole new window of opportunities has just opened for him and his business.

What is the paradigm shift?

The truth is with the 4th industrial revolution being in place now the whole world is shifting. New disruptive technologies like Artificial Intelligence (AI), Internet of Things (IoT), Big Data, Blockchain and many more (see Gartner Technology Hype Cycle 2016) are on the rise which enable us to shape products, business models and services we have never dreamed of before. Many of these new technologies seem to appear very mysterious to many senior managers.

The paradigm shift is:

· Many emerging disruptive technologies are easier to learn than ever before. The access barriers (learnability, costs, complexity,..) to many of these new technologies have become so low over the past couple of years that even non-experts with very little ressources can make use of them today.

· Past (maybe even painful) experiences taught our brains that understanding and using new technologies is complex, expensive and the privilege of experts. And this limiting belief is just no longer valid for many cases.

It looks like many business leaders did not get this memo. Chances are, their competitors did.

My impression is, for many people terms like Artificial Intelligence, Internet of Things, Cloud Computing, Big Data, Data Analytics, Artificial Intelligence, Blockchain and many more still seem to be a mystery.

Embracing new technologies = competitive advantage

Of course, it needs an open mindset in order to learn about new technologies.

“Minds are like parachutes. They only function when they are open.” — Sir James Dewar

I strongly believe the ability to explore and exploit new technologies will become a major competitive advantage factor in the near future. The amount of disruptive technologies emerging at this time and the endless possibilities of their combinations opens an innovation space which a human being can barely comprehend completely.

I like to describe this gap between actual and potential with the following graphic. This graphic is inspired by Clayton Christensen’s explanations around disruptive innovations in the context of how customers can (or better cannot) adapt to new technologies. But I suggest this applies to business leaders as well.

My graphic depicts is a huge gap between a) the pace of technological progress and b) the technological progress that business leaders think they can utilise or absorb. The pace of technological progress is an exponential curve whereas the adaption rate of business leaders seems to be a linear one.

The Business Leader Tech Performance Gap, Intent-X Limited, by Sabine Reppert

In order to not fall behind, business leaders are advised to let go of their limiting negative attitude towards embracing new technology. I believe many digital transformation programs we see in place today are having a blind spot here. They leave business leaders under the impression that they need to hire rare experts and have to mobilize a huge amount of resources in order to get even started.

It is no wonder that GE CEO Jeff Immelt announced a year ago every new hire has to learn how to code: “It doesn’t matter whether you are in sales, finance or operations. You may not end up being a programmer, but you will know how to code.”

New emerging technologies demystified

It has never been so easy in human history to start learning to handle a new technology with so little resources like today for several reasons:

1. IT-technology you need in order to build a system has never been cheaper and more accessible. Take the Raspberry Pi (< 100 USD) for example. There are programs for free out there for teaching small children how to use this technology. I’m convinced senior executives would benefit from similar programs. Here is definitely room for improvement.

2. Open source and open innovation is the new normal. Companies like IBM, GE, Siemens,… provide application interfaces and development kits where developers (kids at home even) can implement solutions.

3. Recognized universities like Stanford, MIT, Harvard, Berkley and many more offer highly professional free online programs on learning platforms like https://www.coursera.org or https://www.edx.org.

4. Programming tools and interfaces are becoming more and more abstract and close to natural or visual language. There are many websites available that will teach you programming for free and many other resources.

Conclusion

Everyone can learn new technologies like IoT and Data Analytics with very little time and resources today. If you are a business leader in charge of driving digital transformation ask yourself to which degree these new technologies are a mystery to you. And if they are, look which one is currently most important for your business and get yourself a short training and a hands-on experience. This applies not only to non-tech-savvy business leaders but also to tech-savvy business leader.

Lifelong learning becomes the new normal. Re-inventing your business very often starts with reinventing yourself.

Your attitude may be the limiting or the enabling factor here to your companies survival in the 4th industrial revolution. In another client’s case I heard the business leader had trouble convincing his middle managers to try out new the new technologies. Many of the middle managers refused to engage with the new technologies in a hands-on experience because they claimed to be managers and were afraid of being degraded to programmers. Sad but true and not uncommon.

Probably this situation is giving birth to a new breed of tech-coaches, who gently introduce new technologies to business leaders and give them a hands-on experience. At least this is what I did with my above-mentioned CEO client.

Interested in more? Contact me: sabine.reppert@intent-x.com, www.intent-x.com

Best, Sabine

(Photo Source: Fotolia)

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