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Seven steps to becoming a digital business leader

Developing employees to embrace a digital-first approach can bring significant personal and organisational benefits

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For more than a decade, business and IT have become increasingly inseparable and started co-evolving, and this unstoppable integration is altering the very nature of companies, competition and work. Along with globalisation, it is the defining economic transition of our time.

To succeed in this world, senior executives must increasingly think digital first, while professionals and employees at every level must learn new skills and adopt new ways of working. Those who embrace this future will enjoy exciting career opportunities, but those who resist it will be increasingly marginalised. We see both patterns in many large organisations today.

Nowhere is the impact of these forces greater than in the enterprise IT function. IT has always been among the most “inside-out parts of the firm because developing and managing internal information systems has required – and still requires – a deep and sustained focus on the detailed nature of individual company operations and processes. 

This heads-down culture is so strong that companies often appoint dedicated business relationship managers (BRMs) who have the communications and consulting skills needed to keep IT’s efforts aligned with the overall goals of their firm.

Although the need for traditional BRMs remains, to ensure their future relevance, they must become more than just effective internal business partners; they must also emerge as externally engaged digital business leaders (DBLs).

The difference is one of orientation – while BRMs focus mostly on internal systems, processes and applications, DBLs primarily engage with the wider digital ecosystem: the startups, technologies, platforms and disruptive business models coming out of Silicon Valley and elsewhere.

Finding the time, budgets, skills and bandwidth to make this inside-out to outside-in transition while still taking care of demanding internal work is the biggest and most difficult strategic challenge facing enterprise IT today. The following seven recommendations can help.

Make ‘soft skills’ a priority

The communication, negotiation and consulting skills that IT professionals need to be successful BRMs are directly transferable to the digital age. Having conducted dozens of BRM training sessions over the years, we have identified proven steps that firms can take to raise the personal power of their IT staff.

Take a hands-on approach 

Many consumer and internet of things technologies need to be experienced to be fully appreciated. However, most companies do not have an effective process for getting new digital technologies into the hands of the right employees.

At LEF, we have used the latest cameras, sensors, wearables and virtual/augmented reality technologies on-site, and applied them to particular company challenges, such as a recent effort to help a utility firm imagine and demonstrate the field engineer of the future. 

Work like a startup

Modern software tools and techniques can often lead to order-of-magnitude productivity improvements. But the use of such approaches within many traditional IT organisations remains surprisingly low. Looking at how tech startups work can show you the latest software development concepts, with an emphasis on application integration, advanced user interfaces, mobile apps and rapid prototyping.

For example, companies can get greater value from their SAP systems by providing a much more intuitive and graphical user interface.

Be socially ready

For whatever reasons, many IT professionals – as well as many senior executives – are neither comfortable with, nor experienced in, modern social media. Effective training helps individuals and/or groups get over the hump so they can effectively engage with Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, and look more professional online. 

Map your marketplace 

Technology tends to evolve in a pattern – from genesis to customisation, to productisation and eventual commodity/utility status. The technique of value chain mapping (VCM) uses this pattern to help firms visualise and anticipate likely market shifts.

Many organisations – including UK government departments – are using VCM to improve their situational awareness for a variety of strategic, operational and competitive analysis purposes.

Develop a disruption point of view

While some industries have been much more disrupted by IT than others, every sector has its own disruption story. IT professionals should be able to help their firm’s senior executives think through how technology is changing the way that industries operate and innovate – but many IT professionals shy away from such discussions.

Tell your digital story

Most companies have a clear business strategy, and most also have a formal IT strategy. However, relatively few firms have a compelling digital business narrative that makes sense both inside and outside of their organisation. In recent years, a number of firms have learned to tell their digital story more effectively. 

Read more articles from the Leading Edge Forum

Of course, no one person can be skilled in all these areas, but developing these capabilities across your organisation is a realistic goal. Taken together, they define the things that successful digital business leaders will do. For those individuals who embrace these opportunities, the future has never been brighter.

This was first published in March 2016

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