7 vital skills for digital workplace leaders

15 April 2014 by

The vision and knowledge of senior leaders has been essential to successful digital workplace transformations at organizations such as Unilever, Barclays and IKEA. There are seven key things that every digital leader needs to know in order to avoid failure.

7 vital skills of digital workplace leadersUnilever, Barclays and IKEA are all transforming the digital workplace experience, not just for their employees but for their customers as well. The improvements in efficiency, revenue and engagement have been dramatic – and essential to each story is powerful and visible leadership at the most senior levels.

Sadly, as I discussed with so many large companies at our recent New York and London member meetings, these stories are exceptions. There are few examples to be found where C-suite execs are fully on board, ambitious in their vision and, perhaps most importantly, in possession of the essential skills and knowledge to lead digital transformations.

The digital leadership challenge: a lack of capability and knowledge

McKinsey found that 65% of 850 senior executives interviewed see digital technologies as increasing income for their organizations over the next three years. However, despite this, the main obstacle facing those executives was found to be a lack of senior management attention and capability. Gartner has echoed this, emphasizing that leaders must adopt new roles and behaviors to drive ‘digital value’.

The issue is one of ignorance; not in the sense of stupidity but in that of the absence of critical skills and knowledge needed at a leadership level in order to successfully drive digital workplace ambitions forward. Without the power at the top stating the vision and ensuring that the many inevitable operational blocks are removed, every major transformation across the digital landscape, both inside and out, fails. Digital leadership is thin on the ground, and many C-suite execs tasked with the role suffer from a shortfall in the skills and experience required in order to spearhead digital programs.

Take the example of an HR Director or CFO tasked with leading a digital transformation for their employees across call centers, retail, logistics and offices. How are they supposed to do this effectively and strategically if they are getting the best digital insights from their 12-year-old son or daughter, who knows more about search and taxonomy than they do?

What digital leaders need to know

So, what are the seven essential skills for any digital leader? And what characteristics should you be looking for when identifying the senior sponsorship in your organization that will be vital to your success?

1. Know that data and metrics are where power lies digitally – and the rest is mere opinion.

Tracking user behavior, personas and search practice are all essential methods for allowing decision-making to be based on reality, cutting through the anecdotal “Well, I used Yammer at my last company and we loved it …”. It is not that leaders must be able to run measurements and benchmarks themselves, but they must know and understand why such activities are key to success.

2. Track the major trends and place value on-trend researchers.

The digital landscape for employees, supply chains and customers is shifting constantly. If you are investing in major strategic improvements – from better real-time communication to waves of office closures to BYOD services – you must know what other organizations are doing and what the “future watchers” are predicting. This cannot protect you from obsolescence, but it can help reduce the risk of your getting left behind.

3. A user-centered mentality is fundamental – and user experience matters.

Testing digital services with users long before launch and refining them based on what those users do (or don’t do) leads to success. This is a practice and philosophy that always matters and produces some of the data sets referred to earlier. Presenting data from user testing and user research puts you on solid ground for conversations with the C-suite; it even has the potential to make opinion-driven executives appear out of their depth.

4. Understand the language and descriptions of the digital workplace.

The digital world of work has developed new ways of talking that are increasingly accepted across the industry. Senior leaders must understand this language. Personas, taxonomy, information architecture, APIs… it is not that they need to “do” anything or understand how each works, but they need to be familiar with a whole host of terms and understand why they matter.

5. Realize that digital transformation is as much about process simplification as it is about grand visions.

Employees using applications on their tablets with similar user interfaces to those being used by customers is not achieved by good design only; this comes about through also understanding the processes those applications sit within. Tasks can be made simple by process re-engineering and creating digital solutions that support them. This process refashioning, in turn, drives usage and engagement.

6. Understand that integration trumps functionality in the digital world of work.

Every major technology vendor is trying to drive their product further and deeper into your organization. Aaron Levine, CEO of Box, wants to penetrate the enterprise (as do his competitors) and to have employees living in a “Box world”.

But while each technology has its capabilities, the main problem we face is a lack of integration between tools. Dropbox, Good, Yammer, Google Apps, SAP… all live in their own separate “digital universes”. What employees and suppliers want is a fluid, natural flow between one digital service and another. Beware the shining new capability and look for integration.

7. Know that demographic changes must be explored and incorporated.

The edges of organizations’ workforces are expanding: at the bottom these are getting younger, with school- and college-age talent increasingly becoming involved with organizations through models such as crowdsourcing; while, at the top, they are becoming older, with workers staying on past retirement age due either to desire or need.

The same demographic trend is true in your marketplace. We are all living longer; smart 12-year-olds are generating income online; and 75-year-olds are mentoring new hires. This increasing age span is resulting in different generations coexisting in one company, each with their own digital needs and levels of comfort. This is new and will become ever more prevalent. Leadership must recognize the power of these demographic shifts, which should be viewed as being as important as regional or cultural differences.

Creating digital leaders

Patch these seven skills together and you have the ideal senior leader needed to achieve what we have seen at IKEA, Barclays and Unilever.

So, what next? One idea would be to send this list to your prospective sponsor to see how they fare and to use it as a prompt to start a new conversation – at least they will know you mean business.


Related resources

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Checklist for setting up a digital workplaceWhere do you start with your digital workplace strategy? Who do you involve? Good strategy and governance are the hallmarks of successful intranets, but are even more important for broader digital workplaces programmes.

This checklist draws from extensive research into digital workplace best practices and from case studies of effective implementations.

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Categorised in: Collaboration, Digital workplace, Internal communications, Metrics & measurement, ROI & Business Case, Strategy & governance, Usability & design

Paul Miller

Paul Miller is CEO and Founder of the Digital Workplace Group (DWG), rated by the Financial Times in 2020, 2021 and 2022 as one of the UK’s leading management consultancies in digital transformation. He is a business and social entrepreneur. His latest book is ‘Nature of Work – The new Story of Work for a Living Age’ (co-authored with Shimrit Janes). His previous book, ‘The Digital Renaissance of Work: Delivering digital workplaces fit for the future’ (co-authored with Elizabeth Marsh), was shortlisted for the Management Book of the Year 2016 Award. Paul’s previous book, ‘The Digital Workplace: How technology is liberating work’, helped to popularize and explain the term “digital workplace”. Paul has given many inspirational talks on the digital future of work, for audiences at Microsoft, IKEA, Google, Accenture, Harvard Business Review, Cisco, European Commission, IMF, Adobe and Oxford University.

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