Cultivating future leaders of digital transformation

Originally written by Lee Bryant on July 29, 2015.

Photo by Pedro Ribeiro Simões

Due to the rise of social tools in the workplace, the growing importance of social media and more recently the impact of digital transformation on how organisations are structured and managed, digital skills and knowledge of new ways of working are now at a premium. If anything, there is a shortage of people who combine skills in technology, management, communications and network-centric operations. And yet, in most organisations, those driving digital transformation are not yet recognised or rewarded commensurate with their value to the future of the organisation, often because they have come from business support functions rather than formal management roles.

Social media teams have become the gateway to market intelligence and customer engagement for many companies, and yet they tend to sit at the edges of the organisation facing outwards, rather than also influencing internal business improvement based on customer insight. People working on enterprise social technology, real-time data and new apps and tools to connect the organisation are not just IT people any more – they are building the operating system and the platforms on which new organisational structures and processes can be built. Others who are working on social knowledge sharing, internal collaboration and even social intranets are also building out a key part of the infrastructure organisations will increasingly rely on to compete, whilst new roles such as community managers, coaches and talent developers are also proving to be more and more important to the future of the organisation.

We are finally seeing the first generation of senior leaders and managers who are digital natives, or at least early immigrants, and on the whole they seem to be genuinely committed to updating their management skills and methods to be more relevant in a network-centric world. I really enjoy doing management learning sessions on the new world of work and new thinking in organisational design with the management development programmes of large organisations, and I am often impressed by how seriously new leaders take these topics. But we need more than better leaders at the top – we also need better leadership throughout the organisation.

We hear a lot about the role of change agents in creating better organisations, and theoretical approaches such as John Kotter’s Dual Organisation and different flavours of self-management rely heavily on the existence of a network of such people who can spread new thinking and practice. But few organisations have a dedicated programme to identify, encourage and teach change agents how to do this work in the best possible way.

The first and most obvious solution to these issues is to help internal change agents and those committed to exploring new ways of working to find each other, support each other and learn from each other. This is why we created Shift*Groups as a community where this can happen. It is a simple online community site, currently in beta, plus an invitation-only Slack domain for day-to-day chat and sharing, with various channels and groups covering a broad range of interests. We are delighted to be working with Jane McConnell, who runs the excellent ‘The Organization in the Digital Age’ research project that produces one of the most comprehensive and useful reports summarising progress towards digital transformation in the world today. Jane will run the research section of the community, gathering and feeding back findings from across different organisations.

But we also need to consider how people develop their skills and access learning about new ideas, models, theories and techniques. That is why we decided to make our own knowledgebase, containing hundreds of techniques, methods, case stories and theory reviews, freely available to the community. We have developed Shift*Base over the past two years to inform our own work with companies, and we plan to create tools and apps based on its content to help people use these new ideas in their day-to-day work, but first we hope to learn more about which content matters to the Shift*Groups community.

Looking forward, we obviously have a selfish interest in helping develop cohorts of future leaders for whom change, responding to disruption and the ongoing process of digital transformation are facts of life, rather than discretionary activities undertaken only occasionally when the organisation faces a crisis. These are the people we hope to be working with in the future. But one thing we have noticed in our research is that existing leadership development programmes only rarely extend to the development of change agents and local leaders, rather than senior management. We have some ideas about how we could help, but first we hope to learn more about what these people need by learning from them within the Shift*Groups community.

If you work in an organisation where you would like to play a greater role in digital transformation, whatever your current function, we would like to extend an invitation to join Shift*Groups and help us support and strengthen the position of people like you in organisations of all types.

Just as change agents can become stronger by building a network within a single organisation, so too we hope they can collectively advance their practice by creating a network across different organisations, sectors and cultures.