When people and organisations are empowered by technology they can find solutions to previously unsurmountable challenges. Consider the not for profit Wayfindr – they created an app that gives vision impaired individuals the ability to move freely, and with confidence, on the streets. And, in the for profit sector, the digital darlings Airbnb and Uber, matching supply and demand and creating income earning opportunity for millions around the world.
There are countless examples of “the tech-people partnership” that show what value can be created for people, organisations and societies when people are empowered by technology. But in a survey of 800 global business leaders, Korn Ferry discovered CEOs have been blindsided by the tech promise. Fully 67% believe technology will create greater value for their organisations than people over the next five years. They are not making the connection between people (their workforce) and value generation.
This CEO blind spot may not surprise everyone. Entire industries have been overwhelmed by the digital revolution. Moreover, the tempo of change has accelerated exponentially. Just look at the shift in the average tenure of Fortune 500 companies: In 1966 the average lifespan was 75 years, today it is only 15. In the scramble to stay relevant, firms are pinning their hopes on what looks like a clear winner: technology.
But technology doesn’t drive change, people do. For organisations to fully benefit from the opportunities that technology offers they need to focus, first and foremost, on developing and enabling their people to succeed.
Sustainable success depends on continuous transformation.
This will require traditional organisations to transform. The way in which most organisations work today will not inspire nor enable people to deliver in the new economy.
The digital world also evolves too fast for transformation to be a one-time intervention. To lead the market rather than react, leaders must embed the ability to constantly adapt into their organisation’s DNA. So instead firms should aspire to digital sustainability: the ability to change in a continuously changing digital world.
This requires more than just keeping up with the latest technology. To build a truly digitally sustainable business, organisations must weave the ability to continuously transform into a firm’s processes, practices, ethics, values and culture. It’s a huge challenge. It requires moving from traditional hierarchies and top down power models to network organisations where people across the company are empowered to make decisions, and shifting from driving behaviour through rules and bureaucracy to inspiring people with purpose and principles. Perhaps most importantly firms must shed a risk-averse culture, still so prevalent in traditional organisations today, and evolve to a culture where innovation and experimentation are encouraged. This culture of empowerment and agility underpins all digitally sustainable organisations.
The right talent is critical. The people who successfully drive technological transformation have a rare mix of both digital and change management skills, research from Korn Ferry found in 2016. But to realize the value of these high potentials, firms must foster an environment that allows these high potentials the freedom to generate ideas, test them and execute on at speed.
Furthermore, leaders must take their existing workforce with them and engage them around a compelling vision for the new digital business. This requires leaders that are clear about what digital means to them. They must define their desired outcomes, focus relentlessly on achieving them and prioritize the things that drive the most value – typically customers, data, and talent.
Starting the journey is the hardest part. Transformation for any reason is a leap of faith into the unknown. At some point, both feet will need to leave the ground.
To help leaders navigate the huge challenge of becoming digitally sustainable, Korn Ferry has identified how firms can move from where they are to where they want to be. Read our latest thought paper Rebuilt to last: the journey to digital sustainability to discover the organisational capabilities firms need—and how to embed them into the company’s DNA.
The task ahead for leaders is undoubtedly an enormous challenge. But the cost of doing nothing is even greater. And the reward for all the hard work? Not just a growing, profitable and digitally sustainable business, but the opportunity to move from reacting to, to shaping the digital world and creating solutions for a more sustainable future.