Leading in a digital world: how to harness the power of change

Leading in a digital world: how to harness the power of change

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Group of people meeting with technology. They are around a conference table with digital tablets and laptops. There are marketing and strategy documents on the table






Strong leadership and education are needed to understand the transformations businesses are facing, from identifying future competitors to managing the way employees work.
Photograph: courtneyk/Getty Images

Business leaders and managers are under huge pressure to future-proof their organisations. To exploit new markets, organisations must embrace and implement new technologies to transform operations – while also meeting the demands of multiple generations of employees.

If the downside of this future scenario is disruption on a massive scale, the upside is the wealth of new opportunities for organisations. The Exploiting Disruption in a Digital World programme at London Business School (LBS) encourages leaders to take a proactive approach to transformation in order to capitalise on change – from identifying future competitors in an uncertain world, to using digital and social techniques to leverage customer engagement.

“In the workplace, technologies like AI and automation have two effects,” says Costas Markides, professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at London Business School. “One is to destroy many of the things you already do – what we describe as the threat to the business. The other is to create new opportunities, new ways of doing things, and open up new markets. This is the opportunity of disruption.”

While leaders recognise the dual effect of both threat and opportunity, many do not respond effectively. “They fail because they try to use a single strategy to defend the core business that is being destroyed and explore the new opportunities at the same time,” says Markides. “In fact, they need two separate strategies: one to defend and one to explore.”

The task of exploring the opportunities created by new technology should, in part, fall to a team of fresh talent, working in small, specialist units. They should be set on the periphery of the main business, with access to all of its knowledge, expertise and resources, allowing them to be agile and adaptable.

Alongside team structures, transformation of the workplace should involve changes to working practices. Tammy Erickson, adjunct professor of organisational behaviour at LBS, envisages this change as a shift from people heading up an office, a location, or a country, towards roles focusing on project-related activity, built around intelligence and knowledge. In this type of working environment, she says, people could choose the number and complexity of projects to bid on in any given year, depending on their personal circumstances.

“They might have responsibilities, such as childcare or care for older relatives, that influence how many projects they want to take on,” she says. “Companies could modify their pay structures accordingly, retaining a base salary structure, but pay premiums for more complex projects.”

SEAT employees at work in the manufacturing facilities at the SEAT headquarters in Martorell, Catalonia, Spain



At Seat, where the average age is 42 and rising, employees are being provided with mechanical exoskeletons to boost their strength. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Shifting workforce age demographics will also require greater investment in people’s wellbeing if vital skills are to be retained within the organisation. At Seat, Spain’s largest carmaker, the average age of employees is 42 and rising, so the company has invested in hi-tech diagnostics to help keep staff healthy and work-ready.

“To help reduce the amount of heavy manual work they have to do, we have started equipping our workers with exoskeletons; a mechanical structure that’s fitted to the worker’s body,” says Xavier Ros, executive vice-president for HR at Seat. “This boosts their strength and ergonomics, and reduces the risk of injuries.”

Leaders must also adapt to the changing expectations of the workforce as the business evolves. Technology may have rendered the need for a fixed physical location almost obsolete for teams of the future, but the same technology can also motivate and engage staff – which is crucial to an organisation’s future success.

“Workers collaborate together, whether in person or over audio and video, to complete their work, and it is this human-to-human connection that drives productivity,” says Tim Stone, EMEA VP of marketing at communications company Polycom. “AI can enhance collaboration by giving employees workers a more lifelike and seamless experience.”

This collaboration will encourage a better, stronger company culture – and one that is built on trust and common goals is pivotal to building a successful, global team. At global technology firm Salesforce, it is a priority to ensure that every employee understands their own individual contribution towards the organisation’s common goal.

“We do this through a range of programmes, from our new hire induction days – supported by country leaders and boot camps to get up to speed on our story and message – to mentoring schemes that support enablement and a fast start for new hires,” says Andrew Lawson, Salesforce’s executive vice-president for Europe. “This strong and recognisable culture keeps people engaged, whether they’re working on the 10th floor in their office or at their kitchen table.”

Against a backdrop of disruption, businesses must attract and retain these hires in order to build a new, diverse team of talented people, who care enough to want to invest discretionary effort. “To do that you need to create an environment in which people want to go that extra mile – somewhere they will choose to work and be excited about being a part of,” Erickson says. “People need purpose and meaning – a promise of what it means to be part of your organisation.”

Putting people at the heart of organisational strategy is the underpinning theme of LBS’s HR Strategy in Transforming Organisations programme. This is a source of valuable insight on how to leverage current workplace culture to create an environment that will drive up levels of employee morale and engagement, and, in turn, enhance organisational performance.

Strong leadership and education are key to understanding the implications of these workplace changes and how to fully exploit them. Covering key areas, including career transition, leadership, strategy, finance, marketing and HR, LBS’s Executive Education portfolio of 30 open programmes are designed to help enhance leadership skills and affect positive, immediate change in individuals and organisations. Also helping managers negotiate the ongoing change is their Leading Businesses into the Future programme, which aims to help strengthen an organisation’s collaborative capacity, transform leadership practices and help managers to analyse the impact of global trends.

However, Markides is keen to encourage overcoming the challenge of making real, tangible changes. “The biggest problem for many organisations isn’t a lack of knowledge; it is lack of action,” he says. “People come to London Business School to learn, but primarily to learn how to overcome the organisational constraints that prevent them from implementing the things they already know. The real challenge for leaders and managers isn’t technology but culture.”



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