4 essential qualities for digital leaders

A woman works next to Kawasaki Heavy Industries' collaborative robot stacking rice balls at Delicious Cook &Co's food factory in Narashino, Japan, April 17, 2018.  REUTERS/Toru Hanai - RC1AA87FD680

Digital leaders will need to understand how people and technology work together. Image: REUTERS/Toru Hanai

Alan Trefler
CEO, Pegasystems
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

As the World Economic Forum states, the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) is introducing digital technologies at a speed and scale unparalleled in history.

Also unparalleled is the volume of data being generated and collected from a wide array of “smart” devices, like phones, refrigerators, thermostats, security systems, manufacturing equipment, and cars, as well as multiple channels, from online to in-store.

This expansion of devices and data is creating an urgent need for a new type of leader – one who understands the implications and applications of intelligent technologies, the importance of data privacy and ethics, and knows how to interpret and apply massive amounts of data to improve the workforce, organization, community, and greater global ecosystems at large. They will be the new digital heroes.

We’ve seen this new type of leadership represented in roles such as Chief Customer Officer, Chief Analytics Officer, or Chief Experience Officer. The titles may differ but what they have in common are the new drivers for success – turning data into actionable insight, competing with digital disruptors (while often disrupting their own legacy businesses), connecting disconnected people and systems, improving operational agility, and creating person-centric experiences, while driving greater profitability.

The 4 essential qualities of a digital hero

It takes more than an understanding of technology to be a digital hero in a 4IR global environment. Organizations will need leaders with technological smarts and the skills to drive transformation.

As the use of artificial intelligence, machine learning, and robotic automation becomes more widespread, leaders will need to understand how people and technology should interact to work cooperatively. They’ll also need to have holistic digital vision at an organizational scale, and an understanding of how to manage decisions from both humans and machines.

As use of robotics to execute repetitive, low-value work continues to increase, digital heroes will be responsible for reorganizing the workforce to take advantage of the higher-value, judgement-based work that can be performed by humans.

Some of these heroes already exist in your business and are struggling to make their vision reality. Other executives may need their eyes opened to what a digital hero looks like. As Shakespeare wrote: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.”

Below is a summary of the key qualities I believe the new digital heroes must possess.

1. Technological vision, innovation, and analytics prowess – the ability to interrogate multiple sets of data and uncover and evaluate deep customer and employee insights.

2. Organizational management – the ability to reorganize the workforce to take advantage of humans’ capacity to undertake higher-value, judgement-based work.

3. An agile approach to collaboration – the ability to bring business and IT together to work in new ways. This requires both organizational and process redesign as well as new approaches in technology that break down the walls between business and IT.

4. Empathy – the ability to not just intellectually understand the view of the customer, client, employee, or end-user, but to have a level of empathy that provides the insight and motivation to do what’s best for them.

New technologies enable organizations to understand what is actually happening at the desktop level and how it affects employee productivity and satisfaction.

A recent study that analysed more than five million hours of desktop activity by operational support employees at Global 2000 companies found the average employee is forced to switch between up to 35 job-critical applications nearly once every minute or more than 1,100 times every day.

Digital heroes will have the skills to recognize work inefficiencies such as these, develop a plan to reduce or eliminate the inefficiency, and create opportunities to improve employee satisfaction and client engagement, and shift the work to higher-value tasks.

Where will we find the next digital heroes?

There are many who are already making an impact. For example, Andrew McMullan, the Chief Analytics Officer at Commonwealth Bank of Australia, is leading the bank’s “Customer Engagement Engine (CEE)” revolution. This emphasizes long-term customer satisfaction and overall customer financial wellbeing. Using the power of CEE they combine exceptional customer service and a multi-channel approach, making all interactions more timely, connected and relevant, no matter how or when customers choose to bank

There are also many unsung digital heroes who already exist within an organization but haven’t been recognized yet. Some have a few of the qualities and will need training to expand their skill set. Some will have to be brought in from the outside.

Education will need to change to nurture the next generation of digital heroes. As human workers will be freed up to perform higher-value, judgement-based work, they will be empowered to make more decisions. Therefore, we will need to shift the culture within education to focus on skill sets like analytics, agile thinking, and decision making, without losing sight of the ability to communicate and relate to each other on an individual basis.

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