How is leadership in the digital world different?
Leading transformation in a world of digital disruption is a more accurate way to describe the current challenge of business leaders. Of course it shares a common ground with traditional leadership, but there are three things that I think are important for leading digital transformation.
First, leaders need to understand the current disruptive trends, the typical strategies applied by digital players, and the underlying technologies. Second, they need to understand what is actually going on. There are many aspects that are interdependent and require the mastery of the business toolbox, but they must be seen from the perspective of an organisation that is being disrupted very violently and quickly. Finally, mindset is crucial. Very often the failure of digital transformation is due to cultural and organisational aspects, rather than the underlying technology, such as in the famous Kodak case that is often discussed in business schools.
An important characteristic of digital transformation is speed. If we look at all the previous waves of innovation and the previous industrial revolutions, they took centuries so people, organisations, and the educational system had a lot of time to adapt. However, digital transformation has evolved really rapidly in the past 10-15 years and it has been very difficult for organisations and the educational system to adapt.
There are a number of critical skills that are necessary in the new world: cooperation, creativity, critical thinking, and communication. I like to say that the leader of tomorrow has to be a “pirate” or a “corporate hacker” – to be able to go around established rules, be adaptive, understand what is going on, and move fast.
Can leadership be taught in business schools? What does it take for business executives to transform themselves into leaders?
With an EMBA programme, we want to help leaders transform themselves, so that they can transform organisations. I believe there are two pillars on which to work to prepare leaders for digital transformation.
The first one is knowledge – they need to understand what is going on and know the toolbox that can help them evolve their business. The second pillar is the mindset. It is important to design EMBA programmes to be as experiential and as immersive as possible. Our classes in Paris do not take place in classrooms. Each time, we are in a different company that is a symbol that will inspire and reflect the theme of the day. We aim to immerse the participants in the new world so that they can feel what is going on and not just see it from a theoretical perspective. We make programme participants work together with the younger generation, who think in a very different way and who are actually developing the technologies that are having such a strong impact on business. It is key for the leaders of tomorrow to be immersed as much as possible in the new world. Immersion is in addition to everything that business schools generally do to develop leadership – participants work within short time constraints; they are scattered all over the place working remotely, and applying newly acquired knowledge.
Digitalisation is a new reality. Who are the experts in digital transformation and what is it that business executives should learn from them? What are the pillars of understanding digital transformation?
Companies, business schools, and, to some extent, consulting companies share a challenge – namely, that digital transformation should be tackled from a systemic point of view. All business dimensions should be addressed at the same time because their interdependency is very strong. You cannot address digital transformation just from one angle, but unfortunately this is what very often happens in companies and also in business schools. Thus, training in this area needs to be designed from a systemic perspective and addressed in a transdisciplinary manner.
Currently, most of the knowledge is inside companies and is held by people who are deeply involved in the digital transformation. These experts have managed to adopt a helicopter view and have developed from practitioners to theoreticians who build a conceptual framework on top of operational practices. Consultants who work with many different companies can also be experts on the topic. Business schools need people with a broad and holistic understanding of digital transformation. However, such experts are very much in demand by the corporate world and business schools are competing to engage them to work in the academic world as well.
Most current business leaders are in their 40s and are not digital natives. How does this affect their transformation and leadership development in a digital world?
This is rather a question of mindset, not so much of age. Digital transformation has a lot to do with exploration, as it is terra incognita. It is interesting that this field is attractive to many people from a scientific background, such as physicists, who aim to understand the world as a system.
Another essential aspect is for leaders to understand that the focus of digital transformation is not technology itself; essentially the focus is on business, strategy, usage, and value.
I believe that the value that we provide is not one of magic recipes, and not only because there are no such recipes yet in digital transformation. Rather, we enable EMBA participants to understand the framework and look for knowledge and we equip them with the right questions to take strategic decisions in the new world. This is quite different from what is traditionally delivered in MBA and EMBA programmes.
That is why we are very selective with regard to the participants in the Leading Digital Transformation EMBA major. They have to be, or be willing to be, involved in the digital transformation of their company. We need to know where they stand with their understanding of the field. They need to demonstrate more than just curiosity; they need to have sound professional motivation to join such a programme.
What does it take to develop an academic programme on such a new and disruptive trend?
First, designing such a programme is a big challenge because the training should be approached from a systemic point of view – when it comes to digital transformation all business dimensions have to be addressed at the same time. It is essential that all speakers are well coordinated in their approach to ensure this transdisciplinary setting. Second, in my opinion, there are two crucial pillars – knowledge and mindset – so that participants not only understand, but also experience digital transformation. The third indispensable aspect is ethics. We tend to be positive and optimistic about technologies and their impact on society, organisations, and individuals. However, although I am a geek and I love technologies, I am also very much concerned about the negative effect that they can generate on individuals, companies, society, and even democracy. In my opinion all the programmes that are currently being designed in this field really have to address the topic of ethics, and even philosophy, regarding these developments. I believe that EMBA participants should discuss these important questions in all courses, not only in a stand-alone one.
Is the digital transformation of a business still an option or is it already a must?
It is definitely not just an option any more. There is no industry and no company in the world, be it B2B or B2C, that can ignore digital transformation, in my opinion. I can classify four types of companies that co-exist today – traditional, digital, digital-like industrial, and mutants. The last three of them I call “open organisations” that have adapted to the digital world. They share five characteristics: user-centric and tending to sell a function, not a product; digitally enabled and data-driven; leveraging platform strategies; applying a talents-on-demand strategy; and attracting an ecosystem of internal and external talent by strong inspirational missions.
This is part of the helicopter view that business leaders today need in order to navigate their organisation in the exploration of a terra incognita such as a digitally disrupted future.
This article is original content produced by Advent Group and included in the 2018-2019 annual Access MBA, EMBA, and Masters Guide under the title “Exploring Terra Incognita”. The latest online version of the Guide is available here.
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