Strong digital leadership drives Africa’s digital transformation

Digital isn’t just about technologies, it’s about changing mindsets. The most well thought out digital transformation strategy will fail if employees are ill-prepared. Strong leadership and hands-on management can help to break down barriers, crack open silos and improve collaboration and information sharing, reshaping processes and motivating teams. These all make for a positive change experience.

In any leadership scenario, digital or non-digital, it is essential that a leader believes in what they are doing as this reflects on the people they are directing – digital transformation is no exception to this rule.

Belief is only the beginning. As a digital leader you need to be able to engage and motivate your people. Digital tools make the path to digital transformation easier, but they can’t replace the direction of a leader.

Effective leadership in a digital environment requires you to foster a culture of collaboration and innovation and put the organisation’s digital transformation strategy into action. To do this you must firstly be prepared to lead from the front and show exactly how it is done. This goes for any project where you are managing people, not just digital transformation.

For example, since I joined Orange in 2013, I have not printed a single page. I don’t even have a printer. This decision will not make a huge impact on our profit or save all the rain forests – but it is a principle, which I hope will change mindsets.

It is interesting to note that South Africa’s paper recycling rates match up to many countries where recycling started much earlier. The Paper Recycling Association of South Africa (Prasa) had projected paper recycling rates to increase to 63% by the end of 2017, since by December 2015 the paper and paper packaging industry exceeded this with 66% of the nation’s recoverable paper and cardboard being recovered for recycling. Now, in my office you won’t typically find any paper after meetings. My teams see me frown if they bring paper along. They quickly get the message and don’t bring paper again. It has become natural for them not to print, which is another small step towards transformation.

My second key principle is: don’t tell me it is impossible. Instead, let me know the amount of time, money and resources necessary to make the change and we can decide on the best way to progress. I don’t like it when people say “we have always done it this way”. This is not the attitude necessary to digitally transform. Having this perspective will not change anything. It won’t change your culture, your behaviour or the way you do things. How can you successfully sell transformation to a customer if you have no experience of the journey? The answer is with great difficulty.

Leading by example

In addition to strong leadership, digital transformation needs early adopters. You can’t be a dictator and force people to use digital tools. It has no value. But you can’t expect your people to embrace technological change if you are not putting your vision into practice and using these digital tools either.

I am a self-confessed early adopter of technology and like gadgets. In my leisure time, I enjoy off-road driving. This may sound more like mud than digital, but there is a twist. I download old 17th and 18th century maps and overlay them on Google satellite maps. If the route gets complex, I send up a drone and can quickly see where to go on my iPad.

At work I was one of the first to sign up for our internal collaboration platform Plazza, which I see as the best way of creating a digital brain in my diverse region, which crosses time zones and cultures. It is an invaluable brain-storming tool that I’d eventually like to open up a segment of to our customers. These tools become exponentially more useful, the more people you can get to use them.

As a digital leader you must speak to the older and younger generations alike, utilize their talents, aid their development and explain the value of digital technologies and processes to the organisation’s future.

We had one young member of staff who reduced emails by 70% in her department by setting up a group on our internal collaboration platform. We asked her to present to management teams so we could drive this idea forward. This reflects an informal investment in change throughout our company.

I always explain what the bigger picture is – why we do and don’t do things – and I find people are much more accepting and supportive.

Don’t forget human contact

My region, as I have highlighted, is vast and culturally diverse, which makes driving transformation difficult. I see change as a natural process, not a hurdle. But I do believe to escalate change people need that human touch. People need to connect on a personal level with other people. With conference calls we all know you do not get people’s undivided attention. I therefore ensure that team members physically visit offices to explain digital transformation and answer any questions, so people start from a solid foundation.

Digital technologies play a pivotal role in creating an enabling environment for new business models and investment. We may be in a digital world, but humans are social beings and we must not forget that face-to-face contact is very powerful.

By Richard van Wageningen, Vice President, IMEAR region, Orange Business Services.


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