Founding Executive Chair’s message

In recent times, there has been a rapidly escalating trend for discussion in business and technology journals of Digital Era, Digital Transformation, Digital Leadership and similar concepts.

Yet we see evidence in a broad range of literature and discussion that for many business leaders there remain unanswered questions:

  • What is Digital?
  • Why do I/we need to know about all these technology concepts and advances? 
  • Does Digital apply to me/us?  How do I/we do Digital? 
  • Allied to that is the core question for us: why are we proposing a Digital Leadership Institute?

Think for a moment about the pace of technological change and the impact it has had on our lives and the world around us.  There are numerous famous quotes for technology leaders suggesting that what they saw in their day was as far as the technology could be extended.  We laugh now at how wrong they were.  But what might happen twenty years from now, when people look back at what we too say about technology? Not just its evolving capability, but its impact on the world we know?  Will we be like the CEO of Britain’s HMV who said that true music aficionados would only ever buy recorded music in a proper shop, because shops have the right ambience?  HMV no longer exists, having gone bankrupt largely because people found that shop ambience is not an essential enabler of music purchases.  As recently as March 2017, we see an Australian company director quoted in an AICD publication, saying “the impact of autonomous vehicles is, in my view, vastly exaggerated.”

For a little more than fifty years, we tended to talk about the devices used to capture, store, process and disseminate information under the heading of “Information (and Communication) Technology”, or IT (and in some circles, ICT).  Something we all knew about IT was that it was mysterious, cantankerous and expensive.  Anybody who needed to exploit the power of IT required experts who themselves were also frequently mysterious, cantankerous and expensive.  But, over time, continuing evolution of the technology has made it easier to use (even if we have no idea of its underlying workings), much more reliable, and in contrast to earlier iterations, ridiculously cheap – to the extent that now price is as much driven by fashion as it is by function.

With ease of use, affordability, reliability and functionality have come acceptance, adoption and exploitation.  The tipping point seems to have been the arrival of the smartphone and the tablet (often referred to in technology circles as “mobility”), combined with powerful, accessible software technologies accessed via the ubiquitous internet.  For the pedantic, these technologies are simply computers, communications and applications – tools for the capture, storage, processing and dissemination of information (indeed, many IT specialists have mistakenly thought that these devices are so similar in function to earlier incarnations of “traditional” IT systems that they should be managed as computers have always been managed).  Yet many more people who know naught about IT have found themselves able to effectively exploit and manage these technologies with little need of a specialist.

With very few exceptions, the persistent common feature of the earliest computers and the technology we exploit today is the manner in which information is stored.  Simply, the information is expressed, stored, communicated and processed in a digital format, usually as a series of binary (two) digits – zero and one.  This common feature has underpinned widespread adoption of the word “digital” as encompassing any situation in which information is captured, stored, processed and disseminated in that ubiquitous binary format.  Thus, we have digital devices, digital music, digital video and so on.

There can be little doubt that the increasing ubiquity and capability of digital technologies is an enabler for immense change in how we as individuals and organisations interact with the world around us, and how things happen within this world.  Put simply, digital technologies enable us to do better the things we have already done, and to do things that we have never previously been able to do.  Our challenge is to conceive and realise these things.

Given the evidence that predictions of “there’s nothing more to invent/develop” and “technology won’t change things” are almost always profoundly wrong, we can only begin to think of the way in which technologies will evolve, and what they will be used for.  Miniaturisation, interconnection, function, and reduced cost all play their part.  We hear much discussion today of the “Internet of things” – a scenario in which potentially billions of devices are deployed for myriad purposes, with one common element – they all capture, store, process and disseminate information to people and to other devices, in digital format.  Again, our challenge is to conceive and realise the possibilities that will be part of our future way of life, which will be underpinned by this internet of things.

It’s at this point that we run into the challenge in digital leadership.  Prior to the “digital inflection” (the point at which digital technologies became pervasive and ubiquitous), we could rely largely on technology specialists to identify the opportunities for exploitation of information technology and provide leadership in its adoption.  Since digital inflection, it has become increasingly apparent that the people who lead adoption and exploitation of digital technologies are not only the ones who build the technology, but also and increasingly the ones who exploit it.  This is most evident in the broad community, where millions of individuals have already found an almost infinite range of ways to exploit digital technology to increase their own capability, performance and impact.

Despite strident objection and denial in some quarters, it is absolutely clear that digital technologies are enabling rapid and profound change in how individuals, organisations, industries, markets and economies work.  But these changes do not and will not come about through pure osmosis.  Simply creating a new digital device or capability does not of itself change anything.  It’s only when the device or capability is utilised to fulfil an existing or new purpose that we see change happening.  Technology has no inherent value: it’s value arises from its utility – from the way we use it to enable creation of capability and performance. And when exploitation of new technology captures the imagination, the subsequent take-up can be breathtaking – leaving those who were not ready stranded as the opportunity races into the distance.  In the digital era, it will pay to be an early mover, and being late may well be fatal!

Who should be leading our effort to exploit new and rapidly evolving digital technologies, creating advantage and potentially rewriting the rules for individuals, organisations, markets, economies and governments?  There are still many who believe that this is the province of technology specialists – but they would be profoundly wrong.  Technology specialists certainly have a role to play, and some have powerful insight to the possibilities – Steve Jobs and Bill Gates come to mind.  But insight and technology capability alone are not sufficient.  Identifying new opportunity requires little awareness of how technology works.  Rather, it depends on the ability to overlay awareness of what technology might be capable of in a landscape of only partially-cultivated opportunity.  Turning the possibilities into reality demands much more than an ability to manipulate technology.  It requires the ability to orchestrate changes at many levels spanning internal business process and structure, suppliers, partners, customers, regulators, the market structure and even the general public.

This is a space in which people with little or no technology experience can and should thrive – as long as they are empowered with knowledge on how to conceive and implement technology-enabled change.   Perhaps Jeff Bezos (Amazon) and Elon Musk (Paypal, Tesla) are relevant exemplars here because they applied the technology to a business opportunity.  Ralph Norris and Angela Ahrendts are perhaps more notable for their efforts as CEOs who reinvented lumbering old-technology businesses at Commonwealth Bank and Burberry respectively.

 

We have entered the digital era.  It’s a time of immense and unprecedented change, powered by innovative use of new digital technologies.  Much of the change will be, as has already been demonstrated, disruptive.  Innovators and early adopters will thrive, while laggards will at best struggle.  Many organisations will not survive, and many people will have to adapt to change as redundant jobs disappear and new jobs emerge.  Fortune will, as always, favour the brave – the ones who step up to the challenge to identify, seize and exploit digital opportunities.

In the early stages of the digital era, there has been a significant focus on innovation through “start-ups” – new businesses that exploit technology to break the mould of established markets and to establish new markets.  To compete, many established organisations are being told that they must behave like a start-up.  But this is only part of the answer to the question of survival.  For established businesses to be the “stay-ups” of the digital era, they need business leaders who have the confidence, capability and knowledge to re-think their business from top to bottom, and execute a digital transformation that puts them on the path to strong, consistent performance in the digital era.

 

We have created the Digital Leadership Institute for one purpose: to help people become the brave leaders of digital transformation in established organisations as well as new ones, regardless of the depth of their specialist IT knowledge!

 

 

Founding Executive Chair’s message
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