Why digital leadership must change

Digital leaders should evolve to keep their seat at the table


The advent of AI, and the changing nature of business transformation and IT, means digital leadership must evolve if digital leaders are to remain a valued a member of the executive, argues HotTopics contributing editor Rich Corbridge.


In recent years, digital has become much more about profit generation, and much less a cost line of business requiring investment. 


As this happens, however, it is important that digital leaders continue to be the loud voice of leadership for how we create hospitable environments for innovation and transformation. 


Digital leaders must be able to influence the direction of organisations, and how innovation will be the way business transformation takes hold and delivers the digital fabric of the future. 


If we are to be successful in doing this, then I believe two ‘scary’ things could happen to digital leadership. 


How digital leadership is changing

The first issue is the very nature of change itself. Today, business transformation is rarely the sole purview of a single ‘change agent’ overseeing change-specific programmes, new ways of working and transformation – instead, it has become the job of every single person in the organisation. 


For this CIO of 25 years, the second issue is scarier still - for the long-heralded death of the IT department may soon become reality. 


I recently saw a successful public sector CIO stand on a stage in London and argue that government CIOs needed to get rid of their egos and understand that their role, as they know it, is no more. 


As digital leaders, we talk of how we need to be part of our business, how we need to be there at the table to answer problems – and not simply install ‘stuff’ that our business has procured. 


If we are successful in making this change happen, then our businesses will finally be able to see the benefits (as well as the experience and knowledge) that digital professionals can bring. 


Some businesses have already achieved this, having applied a variety of tactics to get there. 


For instance, in my previous role as CIO at Boots UK, the separation of digital and IT ensured that digital business transformation was truly at the table with the business and the trading of the brand. 


The business made marketing and technology professionals sit together to resolve problems but it did however create a new ‘garden fence’; whereby technologists and digital people, needed to meet and play nice - which wasn’t always possible.


What is the optimal way that digital professionals need to show up in 2024 – particularly if we are doing so with the knowledge that such significant change is really around the corner?


Related reading: Securing your next C-suite role, from CIO to CEO


Can digital leaders learn from start-ups?

If we look at the finance sector, we can find some inspiration for how digital-first brands operate differently from the norm.


UK-based Starling Bank, for example, publicly exclaims that it is a bank without an IT department – and yet it is a truly digital-first innovator in the sector. 


Judo Bank, a relatively new entrant achieving its full licence in April 2019, offers the technology premise of owning no IT estate and ‘Everything as a Service’ (EaaS), a model which has seen it achieve a Net Promoter Score of +85.


DBS, said to be the world's best digital bank, embraced the concept of a platform business, organising for work around platforms; these being a combination of technology assets and the talents which support, manage and guide them to delivery through innovation and transformation (and crucially the funding needs to do so).


Each of these stories are fascinating case studies that are worth exploring the next time your business asks how it transforms faster, cheaper, or more efficiently.


I do have a worry, though. In the late 1990s, healthcare was asked to look at the travel and tourism industry for inspiration, and the same question would often come up; ‘If I can book my holiday online from end-to-end, why can’t I do the same for my healthcare experience?’ 


It is a valid question, but it exposes the crucial element that each business is different. Each organisation does need to land on its own business transformational journey, finding its own way of ‘being’ when delivery is required across the business. 


The aforementioned banks are an example are just that. Each one of them applies their own needs to their chosen direction. We have yet to create the perfect cookie-cutter digital business transformation shape that we can all apply – so take what you can from these examples and see to what extent they fit with your business.


Why business digital transformation is a moving target

Business digital transformation requires continued investment which, once started, will need to continue.


It is a moving target because there is not an end state to reach, but rather a cultural agreement that the business is now digital-first and customer-centric. 


The ‘Abilene Paradox’, the concept whereby a collective agrees on a direction of travel that none of the individuals agree to, runs rife for digital leaders that are on this transformation journey. 


We need to find ways to combat this, or at least understand and expose it. We are concerned about how we manage conflict, when, in reality, the management of (assumed) agreement is where we find ourselves too often.


The thesis is that, in contemporary organisations, there is no ability to cope with the fact that we often go ahead with something that we don’t agree with – primarily to keep the harmony of the organisation. 


This can be seen as consensus but when the Abilene Paradox is at play, it is anything but. Individuals and teams pretend to be running in the same direction, often to maintain some perception of consensus, when the reality is they are in discrete conflict with one another.


As we look at the silo of the digital team or IT department, the Abilene Paradox is often at large. For example, the need to reduce the budget of transformation is ‘agreed’ as a principle of the organisation, alongside the need to transform, to be more efficient, digital-first and avoid cybersecurity risk. 


To avoid confrontation, the IT budget is cut but the expectation of delivery does not change. Suddenly, the team cannot manage and a worsening failure rate impacts not only its reputation, but also future budget conversations.


Related reading: How to become a better CIO in 2024


Digital leaders must have the courage to lead

All is not lost however, for the Abilene Paradox can be avoided. If the digital leader has a loud enough voice, is not in a silo seeking ‘IT Budget’ and the delivery of technology is seen as simply part of doing business, then you can look ahead to a brighter future.


It does, though, require both persistence and an ability to bring people with you, no matter their role or reputation.


For instance, I have this brilliant memory of Leo Varadkar, the-then minister for health in the Republic of Ireland, asking me when I would have have ‘finished’ transforming the Irish healthcare system with digital investment. 


When my answer was ‘never’, the initial perplexed look on his face was fascinating. Then there was the dawning realisation, as we got off the Abilene bus, that we would work together to build the case for continuous change. Sadly, any digital professional working in a civil or public service role will need to do this persuasion, and create this dawning realisation, on a frequent basis, not least given regular leadership reshuffles in government mean there are new people to convince. 


So, what can we take from all of this? 


As digital leaders, we need to create the environment to establish unity across the business that you and your digital colleagues are part of. Strength is from diversity – not always from consensus, but all pulling in an agreed way to the common goal is more important than the details of the ‘how’. 


We need to create comfort to speak up without fear and explain (and listen to) how we can achieve the most together. Thank those that speak up if we are ‘slowly’ agreeing the end state and direction, and let's get rid of the ego. 


The most important truth to hold dear is that the digital leader has the role to play in the next generation of your business – how it is identified within that business will cease to matter, what will matter is the voice you have at the table of change. 


Join the HotTopics Contributing Editors Network

HotTopics contributing editor Rich Corbridge is the CDIO and Director General for Digital at the UK’s Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), where he is responsible for technology and data.


He has spent over 25 years in senior digital and IT positions in public and private sector, having formerly been the Director of Innovation and CIO at Boots UK, CDIO at Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust and Chief Information Officer for the Health Service Executive in Ireland. Corbridge is ranked within HotTopics Global CIO 100, and is listed as one of the UK’s 50 most influential technology leaders by ComputerWeekly.

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