Leadership in a digital age: what needs to change?

Even coming up with a definition for "digital" can be a challenge.

Despite increased acceptance of mobile and web applications at work, a huge proportion of senior leaders report challenges in dealing with the changes brought on by technology, as Cath Everett reports. 

As the world becomes increasingly digital, this brings with it challenges as well as benefits. In fact, the latest Management Agenda survey from leadership institute Roffey Park found that two in five respondents feel that the biggest organisational challenge they will face over the next five years is dealing with changes to how they work brought about by technology.

Technology is intensifying existing tensions and paradoxes and stretching leadership capacity.” – Steve Hearsum, Roffey Park

The majority (60%) said that digital technologies and social media were already changing how they did things. But when asked how managerial colleagues were faring in terms of exploiting the potential opportunities opened up, two-thirds predicted that their organisation would need to either develop or recruit fresh leadership skills in the future.

Steve Hearsum, Roffey Park’s programme director of leadership in a digital age, explains: “There’s always been a gap between technology, leaders and social processes in organisations, communities and society – but digital, however you define it, is just making the gap get wider more quickly. So technology is intensifying existing tensions and paradoxes and stretching leadership capacity.”

But it is this lack of a clear definition of what “digital” actually means that can cause problems. People often end up talking at cross-purposes: “How you define it depends on who you ask and who’s asking the question, but what is clear is that it isn’t just about technology and boxes.

“It’s about the shifting nature of relationships between people and organisations, changing social processes and the way in which things take place,” he says.

This lack of common understanding of the term, even within different parts of the same business, makes it vital that managers take the lead in guiding the workforce through the current ambiguity and uncertainty.

Changing leadership styles

According to Roffey Park, organisations will need to shift from old command-and-control leadership styles to become more:

  • user-centred, in the sense that all customers using your products and services can be defined as users;
  • collaborative, which means not just good team-working, but also allowing yourself and others to challenge each other and engage in robust dialogue regardless of their position or status;
  • supportive of innovative ways of working, which implies more experimentation and risk-taking and a willingness to learn from mistakes;
  • agile and able to adapt to changing contexts, rather than being wedded to long-term plans; and
  • willing to let teams become autonomous in order to drive change and transformation.

But in order to support the “democratising potential of digital”, Hearsum warns, HR must stop conflating digital with HR technology: “This is part of it, but not the same. In the same way that many managers haven’t kept pace with ‘digital’, neither have many HR people and they’re often still working with outmoded notions of leadership,” he adds. “But there is an argument that if you embrace the digital mindset, the relationship with HR changes too.”

Part and parcel of this changing relationship is a higher level of trust, which also means changes to the role of HR, as Hearsum concludes: “Rather than talk about getting closer to the business, HR becomes part of it. And a clear decision is made that you’re there to collaborate with people – if you don’t, how are you going to meet them where they are? Because you won’t be in dialogue and so won’t be able to hear them.”

Cath Everett

About Cath Everett

Cath has been a journalist and editor for more than 20 years, specialising in HR and technology issues.
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