Why digital workplace transformation starts with digital leadership

May 10, 2017 Updated: February 15, 2023 by

Successful digital transformation – both inside and outside the organization – starts with digital leadership. Yet many leaders are struggling to understand how to evolve their leadership capabilities in the digital world of work and truly to understand the potential value of organizational transformation.

To address this, leaders need to understand how to lead in the digital workplace as well as how to lead the digital workplace. This involves developing the digital skills and principles that guide their leadership practices and gaining a strong understanding of why leadership in the digital workplace is a core component of wider digital transformation. At DWG, we call this “Inside-Out Digital Leadership”. 

Why digital leadership?

DWG research and benchmarking of the digital workplace focus on both the “what” (the digital capabilities) and the “how” (the digital enablers), building a holistic picture of what it takes to digitally power-up the organization’s workforce. This is an evidence-based approach that finds support in the broader literature on digital transformation. At the very core of the “how” of digital success is leadership capability. Yet in many organizations this capability is currently lagging.

Senior managers are realizing that, in order for their organizations to do more than merely cope with the ongoing wave of digital disruption impacting on the operation, a new approach is needed. Digital workplace programmes offer such an approach. Pressure to adapt is now coming from both within and outside organizations, driven on by the ever-accelerating pace of digital progress.

In most organizations, progress has been made via separate programmes and individual visions and strategies, which may or may not correlate. However, there is growing acknowledgement that this fragmentation is detrimental and that, in order to deliver increased business value and a cohesive employee experience, an integrated digital workplace programme with an overarching vision and strategy is needed, with leadership from the very top of the organization.

Against a backdrop of the digital disappointment and disillusionment felt by many staff in large organizations, building energy and confidence in digital transformation will require a concerted effort from the C-suite that starts on the inside. Everyone will be watching what leaders do next.

Leading in the digital workplace

Leading effectively in the digital workplace means adapting and extending core leadership skills such as strategic thinking, effective communication and business acumen to include a new set of practices. How does the leadership in your organization rate on these skills?

As well as adapting and extending their skill set, leaders need to keep a number of key principles in mind. How well does the leadership in your organization apply these principles?

Having an effective digital leadership style is not about adopting a one-size-fits-all approach, nor does it mean that leaders must abandon their preferred leadership style. Although leaders may orient to a preferred approach as their main style (for example, transformational or laissez-faire), they also adopt different styles at different times and within different contexts.

Who are you leading in the digital workplace?

Fragmentation of work is impacting on leadership, not only within the core organization, where staff may work across boundaries and in different times or places, but who leaders lead is also changing and expanding as the digital era increasingly fractures long-held notions of the shape and boundaries of organizations. Increasingly, much of the workforce may lay outside the boundaries of the organization as well as constituting a hybrid of both humans and robots.

The digital workplace is at the heart of enabling this extended workforce, offering a personalized, dynamic suite of tools that support communication, collaboration and performance management. The digital skills and principles we have already looked at will form a cornerstone for leaders to build a personal brand and communicate their vision inside the organization, and for this influence to ripple outwards to their wider group of followers.

Leading the digital workplace

Leaders will be thinking about digital transformation of the organization as a whole. As technology doesn’t look like it is going anywhere anytime soon, we might as well use it to our advantage. We all have to start somewhere.

The digital workplace programme will be one key part of this wider digital transformation. For some organizations it is the starting point of an “inside out” transformation in which revolutionizing the way the company operates internally is critical to underpin wider transformation of the customer relationship and potentially the business model.

To leverage this opportunity, leaders need a map of the digital workplace landscape that helps them understand what it is, the business case, organizational readiness and change management, user experience and how to set up a programme. This starts with evaluating the current digital workplace landscape, understanding the gaps and challenges, and starting to map out the way forward.

How can we improve digital leadership in our organization?

Improving digital leadership, and the digital workplace, starts with getting a “level set” on current capability. For the digital leadership skills and principles:

  • What is the current capability in the C-suite and across the various layers of leadership in the organization?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses?
  • Which areas of capability need to be priorities for improvement and would have the greatest impact?
  • What specific actions would help to close this gap?

You can take a similar approach when thinking about digital workplace maturity, reflecting on current and desired maturity, and how to shift the organization towards the desired state.

Using the self-assessments in this way provides a quick “heuristic” to start understanding current capability. Going deeper, with an in-depth benchmark, will provide a detailed picture of the “what” and the “how” of the digital workplace in order to map out the trajectory towards success.

The research

DWG’s new member research paper “The Inside-Out Digital Leader” includes:

  • 50 pages of evidence-based guidance on digital leadership
  • 13 “Leader” spotlights highlighting good practice from major organizations
  • a review of leadership styles along with digital workplace opportunities and pitfalls
  • self-assessment tools for digital skills, principles and digital workplace maturity to enable you to map current and desired capability and develop an action plan.

You are welcome to download a report excerptt. (The full report is reserved for DWG Members.)

Related research and resources

The Inside Out Digital Leader

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Categorised in: Digital workplace, Research reports

Elizabeth Marsh

Director of Research

Elizabeth Marsh is DWG’s Director of Research and author of its latest report ‘Digital workplace overload: How to reduce employee technostress’ (available free on our website). She’s worked as a practitioner, researcher and consultant in the digital workplace field for over 20 years and is a strong advocate for digital literacy and digital wellbeing at work. Elizabeth is currently doing a PhD at the University of Nottingham focusing on employee technostress and the potential of mindfulness to help reduce it. She also co-authored – with Paul Miller – the book ‘The Digital Renaissance of Work: Delivering digital workplaces fit for the future’.

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