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The leading edge - how to lead businesses through digital revolution

(Image credit: Image Credit: Konica Minolta Business Solutions UK )

No internal project succeeds while it’s actively resisted by employees. It’s always healthy for there to be voices of dissention, but eventually an organisation must coalesce around a particular strategy and carry it through to completion. Compromising, securing agreement and bringing others along with you is the mark of a good leader. Every successful project needs one; a champion who builds support and leads the initiative on to success.

It’s exactly the same with digital transformation projects. Technologies such as artificial intelligence, advanced analytics and 3D printing are changing almost every aspect of operations and forcing businesses to reappraise their strategy. To do this effectively, though, every business needs clear leadership – and that’s exactly what most of them lack.

Who’s responsible?

This autumn, KCOM conducted in-depth research across multiple industries to establish organisation’s progress towards cloud migration, and how prepared they are to take advantage of the transformational capabilities that cloud promises.

We found a worrying lack of leadership – or, rather, confusion about who should be taking the reins of digital transformation. For example, the majority of our respondents (56 per cent) believe that it’s the Chief Innovation Officer who is most responsible for innovation.

Yet following close behind are the senior management team, which 54 per cent believe is responsible for innovation, a dedicated innovation team (also 54 per cent), and the CTO or the IT department (44 per cent). By comparison, just 30 per cent said that innovation is expected at every level.

There is nothing wrong with any of these people or teams taking charge of innovation – as long as they have the knowledge, the experience and the drive to lead the business down the path of progress. A Chief Innovation Officer combines these qualities, being familiar with the latest technologies and agile methodologies for implementing them effectively, while also have the time and the authority necessary to put their plans into effect.

Often it’s the CEO who’s responsible for carrying through these vital strategic projects. Yet our research suggests that this is the wrong person in the organisation. Over half (52 per cent) of our respondents said that they do not believe their CEO is proficient at delivering change, while almost a quarter (21 per cent) view their CEO as incapable of it.

This might seem like a massive vote of no confidence in the person leading the organisation, but our respondents’ seeming lack of faith shouldn’t be seen as pejorative towards CEOs. It might well be a problem of perception, with the CEO implementing innovation strategies and failing only to communicate them effectively to the rest of the business. It may, on the other hand, be that CEO cannot hope to devote the necessary time and energy to such narrow and specific projects.

If anything, the findings from our research reinforce the argument for putting projects into the hands of people with the time and the technical ability to successfully deliver them. This may well be a Chief Innovation Officer or Chief Data Officer. We should not be prescriptive about the specific job title – the important thing is that they have a wide-ranging remit, and that they are given the authority and resources they need. Meanwhile, whoever is responsible for these projects needs to exercise sound judgement and foster a sense of trust to create the environment for innovation to prosper.

Who dares wins

However, there is another key characteristic of a successful digital transformation leader  – bravery. While no-one believes that leaders should throw caution to the wind and charge head-first towards their goal, too much fear of failure can lead to projects that are unambitious and fail to deliver the full benefits available.

Our research found that, for the most part, the attitude of senior leadership towards failure is cautious but sensible - 46 per cent embrace failure, as long as it is discovered early enough to avoid cost. However, roughly a quarter actively either discourage or encourage failure (28 per cent and 26 per cent respectively).

Every business will have a different attitude towards failure and the balance of risk and reward. In the public sector or financial services industry, for example, organisations are hardly likely to take risks with projects that will ultimately affect people’s health or their money. A certain amount of calculated risk-taking can, however, be critical when it comes to innovation.

What’s truly important is that organisations can clearly define both failure and success. Respondents expressed a wide range of views on this. The most popular definition was a project that costs more than originally budgeted, cited by 72 per cent. This was more than twice the proportion who defined failure as a project that overruns its scheduled timeframe. Meanwhile, just under half (45 per cent) define it as a failure to achieve the original designated outcome.

Leadership will not always be stable in an organisation. Not every project should fall to the most senior executive – they do not have a monopoly on technical expertise or courage. Yet every project inevitably needs a dedicated leader who is experienced, sets clear objectives, takes responsibility and uses agile development processes. Smaller, more frequent updates will help project progress become more visible, and win support – the secret ingredient for any successful revolution.

Stephen Long OBE, Managing Director, KCOM Enterprise (opens in new tab)
Image Credit: Konica Minolta Business Solutions UK 

Stephen Long is executive vice president at KCOM, and is responsible for the enterprise part of the business. Since joining in 2013, Stephen has developed KCOM’s enterprise technology team into one of the UK’s leading public cloud, customer experience and connectivity providers, working with complex organisations to re-imagine and re-architect their business processes.