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Digital Leaders: Navigators in a Complex World

Feature Article | March 23, 2018 by Bernd Leukert

Today’s technology-driven world is undeniably complex. This complexity is reflected in many aspects of our society, from cultural shifts to ethical issues resulting from the advance of technologies such as machine learning.

To deal with – and benefit from – these changes, many companies face the challenge of transforming their traditional businesses into digital enterprises. Customers rely on leaders from the IT industry to help guide them through the digitalization of their products, processes, and business models and unlock the value from transformative innovations such as the cloud, big data, and artificial intelligence.

Both the rapid changes in technology and the unprecedented volume of disruption exacerbate the need for excellent leadership, according to Gartner’s May 2017 report, Leadership in the Digital Age: A Gartner Trend Insight Report. In addition, we believe digitalized businesses change the way we work in teams, organizations, and even bigger networks and ecosystems.

Innovation today is about a whole system of mechanisms that must function together seamlessly, while smart technology ensures everything is connected from the device to the dashboard.

Leaders Are Faced With Complexity

While new technologies and growing ecosystems boost digital businesses, they also create, or increase, complexity, resulting in hyper-connected networks, ecosystems, industries, and whole economies.

This hyper-connected environment creates new challenges for IT leaders: As the recognized experts in their field, they are expected to not only envision, but also to realize new technology trends and business models for their companies. Furthermore, they have to provide clear guidance on topics such as modernizing IT landscapes, establishing data-driven digital business models, and catching up with new competitors – as well as driving the cultural changes related to technological progress.

In such an increasingly connected environment, we also need to adapt and rethink leadership principles. Why? Because disruptive innovation is about new collaboration and business models. But there is another dimension that must not be forgotten in today’s world: These new collaboration and business models require societal acceptance and depend on the perceived value that they bring to society as a whole.

Sustaining disruptive innovation is all about humans, not just technology and business models. To prosper over time, every company must not only deliver in terms of financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society. When developing their strategies, companies must consider all of their stakeholders, including shareholders, employees, customers, and the communities in which they operate.

Leaders Are the Navigators

We live in a complex world, one in which navigating a business’s path to success can sometimes feel overwhelming. Innovative leaders however, have always been the ones who stood up first, who wanted to move the needle and push us forward – as a company, as individuals, and as a society.

In my opinion, this requires not only intelligent software and leaders and employees who have an in-depth digital knowledge, but also new skills. The skills required to be successful in hyper-connected networks and ecosystems are arguably self-explanatory: Leaders need to be able to listen, they need to be willing to collaborate, and they must care about the impact they and their companies make because in the future, it will be even harder to establish completely new business models, products, and services as a single individual, company, or organization.

So here are my three key takeaways.

Leaders Must Listen

Leaders need to have an eye on economic, political, and societal trends. They also need to listen carefully to customers, partners, and employees. As a leader, you have the privilege of being able to speak with all these stakeholders. Hearing their different points of view gives you a broader overview of the big picture which, in turn, allows you to make bolder decisions.

Leaders must encourage continuous and life-long learning and lead in this respect by example. In an era of knowledge workplaces and augmented capabilities, where many routine tasks will be either supported or managed and executed by intelligent systems, this is now more important than ever.

For leaders today, it’s about constantly assessing and questioning the status quo, reviewing their own position, being open to new trends, and taking the appropriate action to change course as and when necessary.

Leaders Must Partner

Being part of hyper-connected ecosystems requires more co-innovation between companies.  While working hand-in-hand with other leaders, partners, and customers has led to many groundbreaking solutions in recent decades, a true co-innovation model between enterprises goes beyond that: It involves more commitment from all parties to drive innovation and share in both its risks and benefits.

In this way, I strongly believe leaders can better focus on innovation. Innovation is not a game of chance or a solo act, it’s about showing creativity and responsibility within a team.

Leaders Must Care

Leaders must put people first – today more than ever. In an increasingly digitalized environment, there is a trend towards ever-growing networks and ecosystems and this makes it more important than ever to focus on personal contact.

Today and in the future, leaders need to look beyond the current innovation curve, the pure technology shift, and the concrete product innovations we bring to the market. They need to create meaning out of it with a clear overall purpose and humans at the core of all their efforts.

While companies strive for economic success, it will become increasingly important to put purpose and societal value at the heart of everything we do. These are the values that engage people in a way that profit alone never will. It is the people who make the company, drive its success, and innovate its future.

You can only navigate the right path in a complex world if you know and understand your environment, and this is why now, more than ever, in the digital age, it’s so important to listen, partner, and care. People first, technology second.

This story originally appeared on Business Trends on the SAP Community.

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