The second annual DIGIT Leaders Summit took place in Edinburgh this week. The day-long event showcased some of leading business and IT thinkers from across a broad range of sectors, focused on the rapidly evolving role of leadership within organisations being changed by digital technologies.
The past decade has witnessed an unprecedented level of change, and as the world becomes increasingly digitised the needs of both consumers and organisations are evolving. Central to this whirlwind of change is the role of leadership within organisations.
The event commenced with a captivating keynote. Gary Crawford, the Group Director of Technology and Transformation for AKQA, wowed the packed plenary room at Edinburgh’s Dynamic Earth with a live demo of an Amazon Echo app being used to deliver whisky directly to customers.
Focusing on the ways in which organisations face challenges in adapting to ever changing consumer expectations and the ways in which internal collaboration can fuel innovation, Crawford sought to discuss some of the fundamental ways in which technology is offering new consumer solutions.
Taking as an example of fulfilling customer demand, the supply of alcohol to prohibition-era America, Crawford outlined how the infamous mobsters and gangsters of the day could have used current advances in technology to peddle their hooch.
From agile project planning, to using online CAD tools to design and 3D print a whisky flask hidden within a toiletries bottle, Crawford took the audience through a whistlestop tour of cutting edge SaaS services, which would provide the likes of Rothstein and Capone with entirely new ways of getting Scotch whisky to their highest spending customers.
It’s all about the customer, Crawford told DIGIT: “customer expectations are at an unprecedented level” and that “with technology at their fingertips, consumers are in control of the market.”
To survive in an evolving environment organisations have to develop new methods of both leadership and working, to meet those expectations. An integral part of this process will be ensuring that internal cooperation between teams and departments can provide the creative freedom to innovate and offer solutions.
Crawford also addressed the accelerating evolution of the market, suggesting that agility and the ability to cope with change was more important to a company’s success than long-term planning.
It was a creative and dynamic presentation, which set the scene for the rest of the morning’s speakers.
Changing Business Models
Andrew Smith, the Chief Technology Officer of Nucleus Financial, echoed several of Crawford’s points, arguing that in order to evolve, businesses must involve technologists from the outset, rather than ‘bringing in IT’ once the business people have decided the strategy.
“Technical people and business people work in very different ways,” said Smith, highlighting the cultural – and communication – differences between technologists and their business counterparts.
In order to ensure responsiveness, he suggested that companies should begin enabling tech figures within their organisations to develop solutions in a creative sphere and collaborate with other areas, ultimately leading business evolution and focus on helping consumers in the long-term.
Smith made it clear that the role of IT has fundamentally changed, from being a business enabler, to being a value creator and innovator. Businesses who do technology best are the ones who are disrupting and reshaping their industries. He pointed to the financial services (FS) sector as a perfect example of smaller, more agile companies innovating where the incumbents cannot.
Smiths talk picked up on key theme which was repeated across the rest of the day, that it is no longer OK for business leaders not to understand technology.
As businesses face ongoing rapid change, management structures encounter an increasingly complex environment. Leaders now have to wrestle with decisions on how to move on from legacy systems – whether its IT, management, HR or finance – to ensure cost effectiveness, efficiency and enable greater collaboration across their organisation.
Kylie Fowler considered the difficulty of making leadership decisions in light of changes to IT real estate and the era of the cloud. Planning, said Fowler, is everything. The era of ‘build and forget’ is long gone. With technological change and ongoing innovation now a reality, the major part of planning is how to make decisions to move on from existing infrastructure and contracts.
“At some point,” said Fowler, “we need to switch things off.” If contracts signed years before have no termination clause then leaders can find themselves locked into legacy equipment which stifles innovation or can even harm the company financially.
Fowler said: “People and investors are so aware that an industry can be disrupted overnight and there’s huge pressure to innovate.”
This innovation can only come about through leadership’s ability to step back and identify how each individual component within an organisation operates and how they interlink and converge.
“We need to start systems thinking,” said Fowler, “and systems thinking requires people who can take that step back and think about how all the other bits think together.”
Fowler also pointed out that the focus on ‘agile’ management is not always the solution. For some businesses, creating smaller, more agile groups is simply “creating small silos where the whole vision and model isn’t necessarily discussed.”
Standing on the Shoulders of Giants
Tom Meades, independent consultant & the former CIO of Registers of Scotland, took a step back from the high level and strategic realm to focus on incremental change and the very real ways in which it can have a profound impact on helping a business to innovate and succeed.
“We don’t have to build a business around moonshots,” said Meades, “incremental change can make a huge difference.”
Starting with the renaissance, moving to the industrial revolution and on to the electrification of businesses in the early 20th century, Meades highlighted the need for continuous innovation and asked how leaders in the digital era can create an environment in which staff can be empowered to innovate and seek ever greater improvements and efficiencies.
Meades used the example of a simple surgical checklist as a way to identify and refine individual activities, with the goal of increased KPIs (in this case, patients surviving). Summing up with the benefits of agile practice across the entire business, Meades made the case for building in multiple data sources, ongoing feedback and making your company capable of accomodating, surviving and benefiting from the ongoing changes in the market.
Procurement and Partnerships
Picking up from the earlier sessions, the afternoon speakers focused on the value of partnership, collaboration and impact. Martyn Wallace, the Chief Digital Officer for the Scottish Digital Office, brought the public sector perspective.
In a hugely engaging and fascinating exploration of the constraints and challenges facing public sector and local government when it comes to innovation and evolution, Wallace made the case for an organisation-, service- and outcome-centric approach. Looking at the problems and putting the citizen at the heart of the solution can shortcut, or even bypass some of the serious issues around the whole procurement process and the ‘silo mentality’ which can slow things down and reduce the final effectiveness of projects by excluding key skills.
The overall message from Wallace is that this ‘closed thinking’ is no longer acceptable. In the era of open APIs, open data and agile business, collaboration is crucial. Interoperability and frictionless communication are the foundation of more effective partnerships and are increasingly becoming required for major public sector contracts.
Leadership for Good
Lynsey Campbell, an Executive Director and financial giant JP Morgan closed the conference with a rousing and passionate exploration of leadership beyond the business, focusing on inclusivity, diversity and how business leaders can help to improve the industry as a whole.
Echoing the earlier speakers calls for collaboration, Campbell highlighted some of the amazing work being done across the industry by groups which are focused on digital skills, gender equality and inclusion. From the incredible work of Digital Xtra in high schools across Scotland, to the new annual Scotland Women in Technology Awards, there are some fabulous examples of people volunteering their time and working to make things better.
Survival of The Fittest
The underlying theme from all of the speakers over the course of the event was agility. In an ecosystem in which technology is constantly evolving and the opportunities and threats to business are changing just as quickly, the core skill for digital leaders has to be agility.
The ability to accommodate changes, deal with unexpected disruption and adapt to new circumstances was highlighted time and again, not only by the speakers, but in the breakout sessions and even in many of the conversations and discussions over the course of the day.
Predicting the future of technology is notoriously difficult, identifying disruptors even more so. The great leaders of the future will be those who can not only adapt to these changes, but truly take advantage of them.