Sunday, 11 January 2015

How digital is shifting leadership

Lee Bryant (pictured right) founded PostShift in 2013 with the mission to help enterprises evolve their structure, technology, culture and practice to become more competitive and agile in the 21st Century.

He has been exploring the field of digital transformation for a much longer time though; prior to launching PostShift he was the Director of HeadShift, a boutique consultancy focusing on the practical use of social technology for achieving organisational change.

"I had a great time for about ten years doing that. There was the need of a mindset shift in how companies were run. We thought that social technology was the way to achieve that. Then, we realised that it wasn't really just about the technology. First and foremost it was about the culture of the organisation.”

That is how the name PostShift came about. "It was no longer a debate that social technology was one of the most interesting ways to connect people inside the enterprise. We succeeded in making that mainstream. Now, it was the time to move to the next part of our mission by helping companies to look at their structure."

Three levels of activities

For Bryant, digital transformation is built upon three levels of activities: "how you change the way you engage with markets and customers; how you change your internal operations; and how you innovate around business models (new products, new services, new partnerships and so on...).”

What he saw with the rise of social media was an initial focus on just external engagement. However, that seems to have changed: "What is interesting now is the recognition that to do all these exciting new things externally, we need to look inside. We need to look at the DNA of the company."

Today, part of the business challenge is management, part is leadership and part is technology. "It is largely about realising that the way we run our businesses is out to date. It is based on old assumptions and constraints of the 20th Century. There is no more reason to use that template."

He believes that there are many new ideas - from networked organisations, to non-hierarchical or self-managed systems - that sit at the heart of more agile businesses. "These are more responsive to change and able to deliver the promise of social engagement and digital transformation."

The capability gap

For Bryant, the way to start is by trying to understand the capability gap that the business needs to fill in to be successful. "Look at how to create those capabilities through better structures, a more collaborative culture and new practices, by making the most of communications and engagement technology."

But, there is a problem to face: "Often, programs are big, top-down and done with such a great intensity that they do not lead to a sustainable change." Change should not happen once per year, but "every week through a little bit of iterations and tweaking."

"You need a real-time picture of the organisational health. It is a picture of the evolution of the company as opposed to a revolution. You need to set some measures that reflect what and where you want to be. Then, keep making small changes that that will help you move toward that picture."

Bryant likes to use the metaphor of personal health. "For years people had used a crash diet, losing weight for a few weeks and then gaining it back.”

Now instead, there is the idea of the quantified self. “We have started to track our health through connected devices and gradually we try to become fitter. It is an evolutionary progress based on real-time feedback rather than one-off big change. The same sort of change needs to happen for enterprises.”


Leading evolutionary change

The companies that are successfully embracing this transformation “have in common a visionary leader who has created a state in which the organisation can pursue alternative ways of working. Often they operate without micro-managing from above."

He cites the holacracy methodology, popular among innovative, customer-centric companies like Zappos and Medium. “They use self-management ideas to involve their people through individual accountability and responsibility. We do not know if this is going to be the answer. But it is certainly an example of the effort to update old management styles.”

The challenge for managers is to take these new radical approaches and simplify them for their own organisation. "It is not about adopting one single template but finding your own structure that matches your culture and the behaviors of your staff.

Ultimately, it is about mixing and matching different methodologies that best suit the company.

Internal communicators – blockers or supporters?

“In some cases, internal communicators can be the blockers. If they come from the old school of controlled messages, they may want to hold on to that position, and not really to adapt.”

Yet, there are three key populations inside a company that can be useful in driving digital transformation: “One is the Community Managers who spread the culture of collaboration and sharing. Another is the people who work with knowledge. And the third is Internal Communications.”

The latter applies when internal communicators act as networkers. “Instead of taking the message from the boss and getting it across to everybody, they maintain the fabric of collaboration and sharing. They tend to be more aware of new tools and techniques that help to build engagement in the digital world.”

Also, they can help to create confidence around collaboration. “A lot of what is going wrong inside companies is a confidence issue – people are afraid to say the wrong things. Not communicating and not sharing what people need to know to get work done is a big issue. Internal communications can play an important role here.”

The future

“We tend to underestimate the time it takes for technologies to become mainstream.”

However, Bryant is sure that in 2015 digital transformation will be recognised as something that cannot be owned by marketers alone. “Marketers play a huge role. But, we will see a coming together of internal and external initiatives as well as wider processes of change.”

In terms of technology, things will continue to move to the cloud. And, experiences – not features – will be key. “Companies will start to have the confidence that they can use simple point solutions like Slack or HipChat above monolithic platforms like SharePoint.”

The leaders of tomorrow

There is a range of characteristics that make a networked-centred leader succeed in 21st Century. Bryant believes these three to be fundamental:

First is the ability to communicate by sharing stories that excite people.

The second is about influence. “With social networks, a good and strong leader can have a presence that is much wider than the one they achieve physically. The ability to influence virtually has become a vital leadership quality.”

The third is having the right knowledge of how things get done in complex systems. “You cannot manage complex networks directly in the same way you manage hierarchies. You need an understanding of how you can affect change when outputs are not under your direct control.”

Bryant believes that the biggest change is letting go of the old hierarchies:

“Leadership is now distributed – it is not confined to job titles and it is not a property of management. These leaders have the big belief that they can make great things and have the ability to create the desire for change.

“Managers are the product of a structure. Whereas with leaders, you can take away the whole system and they will still be leaders.”

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This article originally appeared on simply-communicate