How technology can transform leadership – for the good of employees

A view shows the working space with a vertical garden at Le Village by CA, a value-creating start-up incubator of banking group Credit Agricole, in Paris, France, July 7, 2017. Picture taken July 7, 2017. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes - RC1FD060E0C0

Technology can liberate leaders from the day-to-day, leaving them to focus on strategic transformation and staff wellbeing. Image: REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

Gillis Jonk
Vice President, Kearney
Jonathan Anscombe
Partner Emeritus, Kearney
Johan C. Aurik
Partner and Chairman Emeritus, Kearney
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In a previous article, The case for ‘automating’ leadership, we described how advances in analytics and artificial intelligence have created the capacity to connect, automate and augment practically every aspect of life. To date, these wonders have had limited effect in our work lives, where practices are frequently too cumbersome, too detached from reality and, yes, too analogue to enable leaders to perform in an increasingly digitised world.

Right now, available technology can automate much of what we call management, giving leaders more time to lead. This is vital. As digitization disrupts at an ever-increasing rate, leaders are challenged to accurately anticipate shifts in the business environment, and to make their organizations markedly more agile. Leaders need to be liberated from routine work to focus more on strategic transformation.

A digital race to the bottom

Organizations today face a technology maelstrom. The Internet of Things, robotic process automation, 3D printing, blockchain, augmented reality and virtual reality all promise to do things faster, cheaper and – thanks to AI – more autonomously.

Executives have little option but to adopt these technologies as quickly as possible. Every marketplace is a war zone, rife with technology-enabled attempts to disintermediate, commoditise and bypass. Meanwhile customers, now faced with proliferating options, expect their needs met swiftly, conveniently and for the lowest possible price. If one company does not meet their expectations, they'll shift their business to one that will.

Technology has always been essential to creating greater customer value at lower cost. On the surface, this seems an infallible formula for profitable growth, but in practice companies often find it hard to hold on to the gains from their digital advances. Most of the benefits must be passed on to customers, as is required to remain competitive. Further, many markets are constrained and so cannot reward technology investments with commensurate revenue growth. These harsh realities can lure companies into a digital race to the bottom.

There is also widespread social concern about the future of work as technology replaces people and jobs are lost. It actually seems more likely that the nature of work will change, as technology will amplify the human potential to yield unprecedented levels of efficiency and effectiveness.

The challenge for leadership is to deploy new technologies in ways that not only yield fresh efficiencies, but also to amplify human creativity, ingenuity and judgment. Augmenting leadership with technology will greatly increase leaders’ ability to meet that challenge, and so achieve real future prosperity.

Agile teams and minimum viable products are not good enough

Overwhelmed by the magnitude of becoming a “digital organization”, leaders often default to creating autonomous teams, then try to create space for these teams to innovate effectively.

However, this approach can limit both immediate impact and long-term success in a digitized world. With much of the organization unchanged, it can be extremely difficult to deploy unfamiliar solutions at meaningful scale. Much of the human talent of the organization remains unengaged, which means their growth and adaptation potential stay largely untapped.

These shortcomings may be compounded by the tendency to apply advanced analytics, AI and other technologies where they are easiest to deploy, with a goal of quickly delivering minimum viable products. Over time this approach can prove a trap, as it is much easier to find a few things new technologies can do than it is to pinpoint how to derive lasting value from them.

Using technology to amplify human insight and talent

Depending on the task at hand, new technologies such as analytics and AI can be immensely powerful – or outright useless. Navigating the uncharted waters of industries in turmoil requires imagination, judgment and a sense of context of which machines are incapable. Humans, in contrast, often excel at this kind of thinking. Unfortunately, most have neither the information from which to draw insights, nor the capacity to advance their insights into action.

Depending on the task at hand, new technologies such as analytics and AI can be immensely powerful – or outright useless

The solution is to use new technologies to augment rather than replace human activity. The goal is not merely to apply new technologies, but to collectively align the most resourceful people to take on the organization’s most daunting challenges and chase the most compelling business opportunities.

This requires a substantial reframing of leadership, away from leadership teams at the top of pyramids, dishing out instructions, and toward a form of leadership-on-demand or leadership-as-a-service. Technology empowers integrated leadership systems that blend human qualities throughout the organization into a single resource, focused on what matters most.

Three principles for augmenting leadership

We suggest three principles to guide the application of new technologies to boost organizational performance and augment leadership.

1. Human centric

Human centricity means using technology to boost human qualities of ingenuity, judgment, contextualization, creativity and social interaction. In other words, putting human beings in the centre of your approach and viewing technology as an enabler of rather than a replacement for human achievement.

Technology should make people’s lives easier (although this is often far from the norm), as well as more productive and more fulfilling. This begins with making user interfaces and experiences inviting and hurdle-free.

For organizations to meet the challenges ahead, people require more than just the information necessary for their own tasks: they need to understand their impact on the whole, so they can coordinate their efforts and make continuous adjustments. As such, companies should prioritize technologies that connect people and leverage their collective expertise. This, in turn, gives people evidence that they are making a difference, revitalizes their spirits and greatly enhances organizational cohesion.

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2. Full circle

Strategy without action is just fantasy. To fulfil strategy, people must be able to effectively work together, and their experiences must be captured to create a source of shared learning that improves future efforts.

Technologies can promote shared understanding and alignment around strategic goals. However, technology should not be a policeman. Leadership must resist the temptation to use technology for corporate control or unnecessary compliance, as this will jeopardize efforts to engage people in driving towards objectives. Rather, technology should serve as a coach, helping people to explore their potential as they pursue goals set by the organization’s integrated leadership.

Collaborative and social enterprise tools, particularly task-based systems, enable teams to work across organizational boundaries, providing information, guidance and expertise to support effective outcomes. Such systems enable leadership to connect and align up, down and across the organization, and to frame missions the organization can pursue.

Such systems also allow real-time data capture of what is being contributed by whom, and about what actually works and what does not. This provides a new source of leadership guidance and shapes immediately applicable coaching for everyone. Feedback can be tightened up through analytics and AI, while insights can be enhanced with external data (particularly customer sentiment) and internal “ambient” data (such as the organization’s email and messaging traffic).

3. Followership

Leadership is ultimately defined by its ability to create followership. As leadership becomes more distributed, it morphs from the idea of a wise group at the top guiding willing minions, to a broad group of leaders in a collective enterprise. This requires people to be truly engaged with the tasks at hand, and to have a greater collective role in defining the organization’s future.

Behavioural economists such as Dan Pink have shown that motivation for challenging cognitive work is not driven by monetary rewards so much as by a sense of purpose, personal growth and autonomy. Technology needs to amplify both the understanding of mission and the feeling that people can have a personal impact on outcomes.

Augmented leadership hits all these buttons. Task-based systems allow individuals to contribute and be recognised by their peers. Guidance and coaching drawn from cumulative captured data and relevant external sources provides individuals unprecedented means to grow.

It is time to move beyond the struggle merely to apply the latest technologies. Safeguarding and promoting an organization’s future begins with understanding what machines do well, then using those functions to enhance human strengths and create new organizational capabilities.

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