Digital Transformation

Why digital leaders will unlock future business success

Dave Vincent
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Growing up in Belfast in the 1970s and 80s, I was convinced that by the year 2020, we’d all be travelling around by flying cars or hoverboards and have a host of robot servants looking after us.

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Fast forward into the 90s and I can vividly remember sitting in my university computer lab wrestling with the logic and Prolog code required to help teach a hungry virtual monkey to work out for themselves how to get their hands on a hidden bunch of bananas.

In 2023, while we’re significantly more developed than that, the reality doesn’t quite match the vision of my childhood  - and the hoverboard situation continues to be a personal disappointment!

However, many of the developments that have taken place, I couldn’t have dreamed of.

Since the term ’artificial intelligence’ (AI) was first coined almost 70 years ago, we’ve seen wave after wave of technology enabled innovation, from the rise of personal computing to the internet, mobile devices, augmented and virtual reality, the cloud, the metaverse, self-driving vehicles and now, generative AI.

Each of these shifts has captured the imagination, created new opportunities and raised new questions and challenges for business leaders. We are surrounded by technology, and every day we can see that technology evolve and change as it impacts the way in which we live and do business.

Some of the most frequent questions I hear from clients considering how to embrace digital transformation are: Where do I start? How do I create the most impact? What does success look like?

Rather than starting by asking or thinking about what a particular tool or technology can do, I prefer to reverse engineer the questions and ask: “What are you trying to do in your business or what problem would you like to solve, and how can a digital mindset or technology help?”

As these new technologies continue to have an effect on all areas of our business operations, customers and employees, companies need a new type of (digital) leader who can understand, interpret and navigate this era of digital transformation.

Implementing new technology is difficult. The organisation seeking to embed the new technology and its staff must complete the change journey. They must unlearn old concepts, the way they have always done things, and embrace the new.

For digital leaders, that means adopting alternative leadership styles.

In the past, leadership was about giving orders and making decisions. Digital leaders know that successful digital transformation is not just about adopting technology, it’s about transforming business and operating models, driving growth, enhancing competitive advantage, and increasing business agility.

Today’s leaders must be able to continually evaluate progress, priorities and business models and be prepared to quickly change direction.

Digital leaders need to understand not only how systems and technology work but also how that technology will be received and used by staff, as well as how the technology will impact the way employees work and the type of work they do.

Digital leaders need to be able to effectively manage employees through shifts and changes to ensure that digital technology is used to deliver the best business outcomes.

To make informed and pragmatic decisions about technology, digital leaders must be able to evaluate the impact technology can deliver for their organisations; use data to inform policy and decision making; and proactively assess and manage risks related to data security.

To drive digital innovation, leaders must be agile and flexible, creating a culture where innovation, collaboration and continuous learning can flourish, and empower their teams to make data-driven decisions.

To ensure focus and alignment, leaders must share a well-defined and compelling strategic vision, calling out what success looks like and showing the roadmap that will get there.

However, it is also important to remember that leadership in the digital age is not just the responsibility of the nominated digital leaders and senior leadership teams. Every employee can be a digital leader in their own right.

By empowering staff at all levels to take ownership and leadership over their work, organisations can drive digital innovation and growth from the ground up. 

The future of work is undoubtedly digitally enabled, and business leaders who are prepared to embrace this change and lead their teams effectively will be the ones to succeed.

The digital age provides an opportunity for leaders to create more meaningful and purpose-driven work for their employees, as well as promoting innovation and growth for their organisations.

By investing in digital leadership development in the digital age, organisations can position themselves for continued success. And just maybe somebody will finally work out how to create the hoverboard I’ve been dreaming of!