Nobody has a monopoly on digital leadership

As IT becomes more strategic and pervasive, effective digital leadership is needed by just about every organisation

It’s a perennial dilemma. As information technology becomes ever more strategic and pervasive, effective digital leadership is needed by just about every organisation. But where will this leadership come from? 

Should business executives be expected to drive important, but often highly complex, technology initiatives, or should IT professionals assume the lead? Teamwork is always a good idea, but who is ultimately responsible?

While such questions have been debated for many years, they are now more vexing than ever. In a business climate increasingly shaped by smart products, social media marketing, advanced analytics, do-it-yourself consumer technologies and disruptive innovations, many companies recognise that they face a serious digital leadership shortage. 

Too many senior executives and managers are unprepared for the challenges of the future, while many IT organisations are struggling to overcome the back-office focus and culture of the past. The results are all too familiar – missed opportunities, project disappointments, time and cost overruns, lack of accountability, organisational confusion, and so on. 

Everyone can be a digital leader

The reality is that nobody has a monopoly on digital leadership, but this implies more than just the need for teamwork. Since IT affects virtually every aspect of the modern firm, employees, managers and executives, enterprise IT and even customers can all become digital leaders in their respective domains. 

This is why the Leading Edge Forum recommends that companies pursue a digital leadership strategy that includes the four dimensions below:

digital leadership chart

1. Executive engagement

Too many senior business leaders still act as if they really believe that “IT doesn’t matter” – as suggested by Nicholas Carr’s famous 2003 article for Harvard Business Review. Consequently, if they engage with IT at all, they focus mostly on cost, compliance and personnel issues. 

But this is changing, as CXOs increasingly acknowledge that their firms must use IT to become more innovative, responsive and competitive. The executive of the future will be digital-first, but many senior business people face a steep learning curve.

2. Double-deep employees

Within internet-driven marketplaces, leadership is often more bottom-up than top-down. It is important to have double-deep employees – those individuals who know both their job (marketing, engineering, customer services, finance, etc) and the IT that is relevant to that job. 

While being double-deep will be expected of the employee of the future, there are real shortages in the market today, creating important leadership and career opportunities.

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3. Ecosystem co-creation

The ability to co-create value with customers and business partners – in areas such as ideation, support, recommendations and customisation – is an important new form of leadership. 

But co-creation is very different from traditional business leadership, as firms must learn how to nurture communities, establish collaborative platforms and reward external contributions. 

It’s much more about influence than control.

4. Revitalised enterprise IT

IT organisations have grown up expecting that IT professionals should lead important IT-based initiatives. But as IT moves to the front of the firm, enterprise IT’s back-office legacy and culture can be a major barrier. 

Rather than spending the vast majority of their time with their internal constituencies, IT must increasingly work directly with customers, partners and suppliers to facilitate new value creation. 

One size does not fit all

Of course, there is no one digital leadership formula. Indeed, the balance between executive, employee, ecosystem and enterprise IT leadership goes a long way toward defining the technology culture of the firm. 

However, most firms have one thing in common. The differences between leadership and digital leadership are narrowing. Those firms that develop effective digital leadership dynamics will enjoy substantial advantages in the technology-intensive marketplaces of the future. 

David Moschella (pictured) is research director at CSC’s Leading Edge Forum.

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