No longer simply an adjunct to the business in smoothing and simplifying its processes, today the technology department is an integral and central component of almost all business operations, one that is essential to fulfilling the organisation’s core mission.
As digitalisation extends into all corners of the organisation, how is this move changing the principles and practice of executive leadership? Could digitalisation affect the dynamics of the boardroom?
A transitional phase
A natural outcome of technology’s growing importance is the rise to prominence of the technology leader. Digital natives – those brought up with information technology from birth – are starting to take centre stage, with the corporate spotlight moving away from digital immigrants – those who were born before the widespread use of information technology.
The current transitional phase creates an important ‘breathing space’ in which to bridge the gap between the natives and the immigrants. It gives digital natives the opportunity to learn lessons from the leaders who preceded them.
An evolving model of technology leadership
Marinka de Groot, Associate Director and Technology Practice Leader for Page Executive in Europe, says that the digital era is changing what it means to be a leader: “The changes go far beyond the small differences that have always existed between leaders in different sectors. The rise of new skills, a new language and new processes has brought greater diversity in leadership, which in turn fuels innovation. There is certainly more creativity involved.”
As the rise of new technology has propelled the technology leader into the foreground, one question arises: Which is driving innovation – the technology or technology leaders themselves?
Technology becoming second nature for all senior leaders
CEOs nowadays are more likely to be comfortable with technology and to have an understanding of the technological landscape that far exceeds their predecessors’.
Applying and exploiting technology are second nature for many executive leaders in business today. They run a company but also have the additional benefit of knowing several computing languages, with a deep understanding of operating systems, metrics and analytics.
Marinka explains, “Development times contract as people understand the technology more natively. Where long-term planning used to be the norm, it’s more common now for technology leaders to be agile and focused on the shorter term.”
Traditionally, the company’s CEO, CMO or CFO would oversee decisions and strategic direction. But, as Marinka notes, a shift is happening: “We are seeing more and more CTOs appearing in boardrooms and the role has become a necessary component of executive-level positions in business.”
She adds, “We’re also seeing more recruitment requests for CIOs (chief information officers) and CDOs (chief digital officers). This is further evidence of the critical importance of technology to the fabric of the business. It has changed the dynamics of the boardroom and pulled business into the twenty-first century.”
Adapt to survive
Companies must now move swiftly to place technology at the core of their business if they intend to succeed in what we call ‘the digital era’, and which is becoming simply the way that professionals and businesses operate.
Technology is now entrenched in day-to-day living; witness the rise of smart technology and the spread of automation into every corner of our lives. With an internet connection often the only investment needed to realise a business idea, entrepreneurs are starting young, while they’re at university or even earlier. So technology leaders don’t necessarily come with decades of experience. It is no surprise that the founders of Facebook and Groupon, now billionaires, were in their 20s when they created their respective companies.
These digital natives par excellence have a profound knowledge of technology because they learnt the skills as children. They know what it means to work in a digital organisation. They use agile methodologies, such as SCRUM. Their unique perspective and distinctive knowledge in many ways compensate for their comparative lack of experience.
Accelerating time to market
Increasing reliance on technology brings increasing dependence on technology leaders to drive the industry in the right direction. But what is the effect of this?
These technology leaders move at unprecedented speeds. The time to develop and test a digital product is infinitely shorter, compared with a tangible product. Entrepreneurs can develop a digital product, test it and found their own company to sell it within months.
As a result the Marketing and Technology functions are working more closely together than ever before. The chief digital officer, another prominent role in technology, now typically unites technology skills with marketing expertise.
It used to be the case that technology took a backseat. Now, with the pervasive application of digitalisation, it has become the driving force for innovation and change. As a consequence, technology leaders are moulding the executive level of business.
Banks, retail, pharmaceuticals…businesses in all sectors now have technology at their core. The pervasiveness of technology and the importance of the technology team and its leader mean that companies have to reinvent themselves. Traditional business models are no longer sustainable in a world where everything is digital.