Being a digital leader requires more than just implementing technology into your workplace, it requires a fundamental shift in our thinking and practices.

Kai Riemer talks to Euan Semple, Anne Bartlett-Bragg and Sandra Peter as they challenge our understanding of the key digital issues facing leadership teams in today’s organisations.

Disrupt Leadership Panel

Euan Semple’s profile

Digital workplace designers (ripple effect group)

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Sydney Business Insights is a University of Sydney Business School initiative aiming to provide the business community and public, including our students, alumni and partners with a deeper understanding of major issues and trends around the future of business.

Euan Semple is an early adopter of digital technologies and an innovator who has worked with major organisations like the BBC, Nokia, the World Bank, and NATO.

Anne is the Founder and Managing Director of Ripple Effect Group. She specialises in the design and implementation of innovative communication and collaboration networks with enterprise social technologies.


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Sandra Peter Introduction: Today a discussion about how to lead digital change in the workplace. We explore how to overcome all thinking in the face of external disruption. And why the digital workplace is more about the people than the technology.

Introduction: From the University of Sydney Business School this is Sydney Business Insights. The podcast that explores the future of business.

Sandra: Discussing how to lead digital change are Euan Semple, Anne Bartlett-Bragg, Kai Riemer and myself Sandra Peter.

Euan Semple helps organisations and more importantly the people in them get their heads around social media, social business and the social web. He's got unique experience doing this from his time as Director of Knowledge Management at the BBC and since leaving the BBC he has worked with major organisations such as Nokia, the World Bank and Nato. Anne Bartlett-Bragg is a digital web based specialist focusing on the intersection between people and technology and she provides strategic and pragmatic advice designed to enable organisations to adapt to new ways of working.

She is currently the Director of the Ripple Effect Group. The conversation is moderated by Professor Kai Riemer, Leader of the Digital Disruption Research Group and I'm Sandra Peter, Director of Sydney's Business Insights.

Kai: Thank you Anne, Sandra and Euan for joining me today. We're talking about leadership in the digital workplace. Now we hear a lot about the digital workplace, changes to work, and technologies that impact on how we manage people and the role of leadership in this process. So Euan, what is a digital workplace?

Euan: I think it's partly begging the question of what people mean by the word digital. I find the use of the word problematic these days people slap it on anything that is new and that they're slightly uncomfortable with. So the sort of distancing that goes on when people talk about digital anything. It's very often used in context where they don't really want to grapple with technology or the consequences of technologies. I frequently meet people who still say oh I don't do technology.

Kai:...But they still do digital... 

Euan:...They still do digital. 

Anne: A lot of people say oh we've upgraded the Intranet, we're a digital workplace now. But they're not looking at the technology as a new way of working they're looking at the technology to replicate what they already do in some kind of automated way. So I think it's a very contested definition. I don't think we have a clear understanding of what we mean, where it's going, and the power or not of it. So if we can't answer what a digital workplace looks like in context for each organisation then how on earth do we help leaders become digital or digital in their thinking? 

Euan: And that's the issue because they say they want transformation but they just want tinkering mostly and the disruptive effects of the technology are the last thing most of them want. So they'll get busy with running a big technology project and invariably spending lots of money as a sort of displacement activity so that they don't have to face the existential challenge of behaving differently. 

Sandra: And I think if we talk about leadership and people in an organisation we're also putting up this artificial boundaries where we think of the intranet or the way the organisation does digital. But then you've got all the individuals within an organisation that carry around their mobile phones in their pockets and they socialise through that and they have their personal lives intertwined with their work lives and if you're thinking about digital leadership how do you lead in that space. A lot of the communication that I have personally is not through the digital that my organisation has but through the digital that I personally have my LinkedIn or Slack or other platforms that I interact with my colleagues as well. But that's not part of what my organisation would consider digital. 

Kai: So what you're saying is it is already happening whether or not any of the management or leadership team take notice of it. 

Euan: Yes somebody tweeted last year that your staff already have a social media policy and that you're lucky they've included you in it. Even just in the last week or so working with some senior people who sort of understood that and one of them was telling stories about what's app and how in a particular scenario the staff had used what's app to solve a particular solution but he was sort of implying that because they'd done that they'd suddenly made this transformation to being digital but it was still a very small group and a very marginal activity. And they're miles and miles away from the fundamental change that still possible. 

Kai: So how radical does the change have to be to become a truly digital workplace?

Anne: I don't think it's radical. I think it's actually just a mindset shift around traditional ways of working because underpinning all of this will change the way we fundamentally approach work and we're seeing those breakdowns of structures now. So I think it's a mindset shift which is pretty radical I guess in and of itself rather than anything more frightening than that. Companies are working with Shadow IT. There's 200 plus applications being used by the staff on their own devices because the company won't give them what they need to do their work. So they're already there. So I think back to the leadership issue, I think it's just a mindset shift. 

Euan: In some ways I think we're getting back to something that we've lost. We've had this industrialised model of how we work with centralised control and conventional management practices and the nature of this is that is decentralising sort of allowing people to form their own network choosing their own tools and I think that calls for a very different mindset as you said but there's also got to be some accommodation of that in the structures and the processes of the organisations and that's what I think is lagging behind at the moment. You do have the shadow world that many of us are now operating in. But you also have the real world which is carrying on as if, well it's not as if nothing's happened because you know it happened, but they don't quite know how to make the shift to help what's happened. 

Kai: So for a manager who is used to having control and being in charge and micromanaging the activities in their group or division? What do you tell them? How can they change and become comfortable with not being in control? 

Anne: Trust is cheaper than control.

Kai: That's a nice slogan but what does it mean for their everyday work? How do they make the transition? 

Anne: I think there's a problem behind that current management are still measured on traditional models and to produce that so they may even have bought into the concept and be really happy about it. But when their performance is measured on particular outcomes that get reported to shareholders in these very traditional structures they're completely opposed to each other. So until that measurement structure changes, these guys are in trouble.

Kai: So we need a change in KPI's, is that what we're saying? We also use the word management as if there were all the same and all management was equal. And I think there are obviously different levels different types and different styles of management. But I think that Anne's right that at political level where you're fighting for a budget all the dynamics are pushing in the wrong direction still currently. But equally that our managers and maybe at lower levels who are operating in teams who are beginning to adapt to this way of working. I mean I think the other thing to say is that not everybody will or can and so there's nothing worse than being a manager faced with yet another big change initiative. And of course the cynicism increases as well. So I think that's partly the trouble with the words digital whatever else it is just another layer of lipstick on the pig. And that's a worry.

But if we all agree on the importance of digital in that we cannot just ignore those changes and be complacent about it, how do we overcome this cynicism and how do we take a more constructive approach to the future? 

Sandra: I think one thing would be to actually learn from how people are using digital and technology in their day to day practices. Incentives I think is a huge thing. We know of organisations where people have been asked to put forward their two year Twitter plan and say what they will tweet over the next few years. So I think (a) it is a question of incentives and (b) it is a distinction between managers and leaders as I think you need leadership in that space and then the management will follow. But also looking at how people are using technology in their day to day practices there so often the temptation to say okay so now we're all going to use Twitter and we will be using it this way. But rather looking at how people have emerging projects and then supporting those initiatives within the organisation. 

Euan: You watch big insurance firms and some of the banks trying to set up incubators and trying to emulate the start-up mentality and way of working. I was part of an innovation group at the BBC and again it's almost like a distancing of the challenge. You have a special group of people who behave in a different and special way and it may not be possible. I spent my life working with mostly big organisations and institutions and it sometimes feel like I'm trying to resuscitate dinosaurs and it might be kinder to shoot them. The sense of letting a new world build itself and move on. So I'm not sure how many of the big corporations will really truly be able to change themselves but if it's going to happen it's going to take very courageous chief executive level not just decision making but behaviour change and I've seen more and more approaches from people where you've got the 40 year olds who know how to turn their phone on becoming more senior and more organisations and they're more willing to seriously put some weight behind this. But I think it's more about attitude and mindset than it is about age. I know youngsters who are quite resistant to some of it.

Anne: But what does a Digital Leadership Program look like? I come and do my executive MBA. What is that look like now? What do we have to change in how we educate leaders? Do we know that yet? So we're asking leaders to change, change their mindsets, and need to learn new things. But if you look at the education programs do we know that answer yet. 

Kai: What we try to do in our MBA program is to ask critical questions of the hype technologies and put our students in a position to get technology differently by educating them about questions such as "What is management?" "What is an organisation?” Are there different views of an organisation? Is it inevitable that we understand an organisation as a machine? Are there other views? And if we take those other perspectives, how does technology show up. How does leadership show up? What is knowledge? Is knowledge this thing that I put in a database or is that not something that we share in our day to day activities as people? And once we put this new basis under the whole technology narrative all of a sudden these things show up quite differently and it allows you to ask critical questions and weigh the positives that are all over the media when it comes to those technologies with a critical view that looks behind the scenes and might actually give us a little bit more perspective on where we are going and what the role of managing in this process is. And we call this unit managing with technology for a reason.

Euan: In many ways you know for all the 30 40 years’ worth of IT we've had, a high percentage of the projects never really delivered the benefits that they promised. But what they did do was make you stop and think about what are we actually doing and why are we doing it. Because in order to manifest it in technology you have to have at least that level of abstraction. And I think that's what most people in most organisations still find difficult because they usually feed the beast. And if you take the beast away they get very confused about what they're actually meant to be doing.

Kai: Yes any such change is an opportunity for reflexive introspection as to what does the organisation do, what is it that we're doing here and how would that change if we were to adopt this technology and that might actually lead to an informed decision not to go down that path because it might not be the right tool for the problems that the organisation might be facing.

Euan: I think that reflectiveness is what we sort of trained out of people because it's not business-like to stop and think. I think a lot of the frankly still mostly men who've ended up in senior positions have got a sort of armor coating around that vulnerability and they were asking them to expose their weaknesses if you like. And that's where the networks push you to do that because they will work out whether you're telling the truth or not. 

Sandra: I think also we have become less comfortable with uncertainty and complexity when it comes to technology. We see technology very much as an answer. And when we implement it the answer to our question should be clear and simple and we should all understand and that if we don't see immediate results from digitisation in the workplace whatever shape or form that might take we become quite uncomfortable and we don't have that time to experiment or figure it out. It needs to be "this is what we're going to get to and we're going to get there in three months" and if it doesn't happen or if the result looks different we're uncomfortable with that.

Anne: That's the measurement conflict again isn't it? You know look we've got three months and it has to work in three months. If everybody is not doing it therefore it's failed. 

Kai: But it's almost worse than that because not only do we want quick results after three months but before we embark on a digital change project we want to know exactly what's going to happen. We want quantifiable business plans. We want metrics. We really want to predict where we're going. And in an environment like this is that even realistic? 

Euan: And my book had a chapter called "we need to be strategically tactical". So in other words you can sell to your senior people that the nature of this beast calls on being tactical and responsive to it and back to the point you made about being interested in what's happening and more observant about what's happening around you and following the things that work and always being humble enough not to think that you have to stick...I mean how many big projects have spent millions of pounds because nobody wants to admit that they're going slightly off the rails whereas the nature of this because it's so fast and relatively unpredictable but adaptability I think has to be part of what you teach people.

Sandra: I think you can address that with metrics within the organisation but not the type that we're used to. You can define the vector that you want the organisation to follow but not necessarily define the end product so you know the direction in which you want to take the organisation whether that's opening it up or gathering more data or producing more content or whatever it might be but that is only a vector. It's not, we will do this by then with these results.

Euan: And even the way we measure and reflect that data - you may know Dave Snowdon and SenseMaker and where that's really potentially very exciting is the ability to show you patterns that are more than just financial or statistical or time based model. And I'm aware of the word sentiment but more about sense - what's the purpose? What's the sense of this? I think we need better more tools that measure that.

Anne: There's a lot of requests for ROI which is part of the business case, that measuring ROI in these traditional ways is not going to cut it. So as Sandra sort of highlighted it's sitting down and looking at the behaviours we're trying to encourage, what are the changes we want and then how can we measure that and come up with...there is ROI you've just got to really dig into it in a completely different mindset. 

Kai: We hear a lot about digital workplace and how that requires new ways of working, more flexibility, responsiveness, agile trust but then at the same time one of the big narratives out there is algorithmic decision making or people analytics, the way in which we can now monitor people on a very micro level and then feed that into algorithms that will make automatic decisions about people the way we can replace management decision making with rule based or machine based decision making doesn't it not pull in a fundamentally different direction, introduce more black box algorithmic bureaucracy in what should be a flexible more responsive work environment. 

Euan: Yes. 

Kai: What do we do about it? 

Euan: Having just been involved in an HR technology conference, the big challenges that HR have been frantically turning themselves into a utility for the last 10 years and focusing on process and cutting costs rather than people and messy stuff. So they've walked straight into this trap in a sense because frankly a lot of organisations you could replace significant number of HR and managers with machines. So my argument is in the face of that, the way to stay ahead of the robots is to rediscover the stuff that you've tried very hard to keep hidden. 

Anne: If we use the patterns and the data it can highlight the data and the patterns for me so I'm not looking at it in a biased way. So the data comes to me with all this really interesting patterns that are going on. Now I can make more interesting decisions based on the patterns that perhaps I haven't seen through my own biases. That for me is really exciting but again it's the mindset shift of not looking for what I need confirmed that I already know. It's looking for what I don't know and being excited about the opportunities there. 

Euan: Or the prospect of assistive technologies where it's enhancing and enabling us to do what we can uniquely do but a bit better. I do worry that there will be need for less of us to do that and occasionally raise the spectre that it's almost 200 years since the Luddites started destroying the weaving machines that were taking away their jobs and frankly staff are going to be reading the Sunday supplements just like the managers are and they can see where this is heading. So I think that we have to try and anticipate. We talked briefly about overselling the changes and exaggerating the speed at which it will happen but I do think it is going to happen and there's no excuse for naively stumbling into it either. 

Sandra: I want to just pick up on one point around people analytics. I think there is great promise there to replace some of the processes that we have currently sitting in HR but also there is a great parallel in that the algorithms and the ways we collect that data are built by us. So any biases that we might have and any assumptions that we make are already built in there. So the type of data that we get out of these algorithms is not objective measurement, it's what we decided to measure and what we decided is important to measure and is important to collect. So I think with people analytics much as with all other technologies there will be a black box that's imbued with our biases and assumptions.

Euan: Sorry when you say ours, what worries me is it's not ours it's a bunch of ADD Geeks in California frankly steering the world in ways that we're sort of allowing to happen. And it worries me that our government and people who could and should be putting checks and balances into that, they might have gone on a coding course but that doesn't mean they understand the full ramifications of this stuff.

Sandra: We make assumptions if we say we're going to study how much my manager communicates with me I make an assumption that this much is good or that much is better. Or him communicating with me on Thursday mornings is a good idea, whereas Friday afternoons it's not and those are again assumptions that we're building. 

Kai: And is it not such that once we inscribe those rules or KPIs into those algorithms they become set in stone, they become very hard to challenge? 

Euan: It's already the case with ERPs. A friend of mine calls them organisational concrete. By the time you've worked out what you want you've paid all the money, you paid all the consultants it's already old but you've paid for it so you'll have to keep using it. 

Anne: That's sort of like social proof isn't it. You've committed to something that you've already said you're going to do and therefore you have to do it so regardless. 

Euan: I mentioned the phrase black box a couple of times, that worries me and I had a great podcast with Sam Harris the other day, a bit like the Sorcerer's Apprentice, where it starts off seeming like a good idea that the broom's help you shift the water but don't anticipate all the consequences. And then he was saying if you've got a black box that's determined to cure cancer, it could start killing humans because that cures cancer. If you haven't anticipated that consequence and of course as the black boxes become self-learning, this is maybe 10 20 years down the line but we need more people to get faster understanding the consequences of this stuff before we just plug in a black box and assume it's going to be all right. 

Sandra: I think one of the consequences is rethinking the way we think about ethics because if you have a black box then it becomes extremely difficult to predict how the black box will reach a decision. So then how can you consider ethics or morality or anything of the sort in that space. 

Euan: What if it becomes more ethical than us?

Sandra: I, for one, welcome our robot overlords. 

Euan: We're not setting a high standard at the moment. 

Kai: This points to a problem - ethics has almost been turned into a separate thing. We do business and then we do just ethics as a checks and balances. We have our profit seeking business processes but then we have morality as a thing that should be a by-product but it's not really part of how we do business. Does digital leadership, apart from all the savviness and acumen in using technology, does that also then require a rethinking at a very deep human interpersonal level and how do we do this? 

Euan: My daughters go to the local grammar school and the six form are allowed not to wear school uniforms so long as they wear business appropriate attire which for the boys means cheap suits and for the girls a world of confusion and pain because what the hell does that mean. And they had a young lad come back after the school holidays with a hipster beard, shaved head, checked jacket the uniform for Silicon Valley and he was told that that wasn't office appropriate attire because the schools are still turning out people who will fit into a particular mindset, particular way of behaving, a particular set of values. So I think you're right - if we're going to expect the humans in our organisations to step up to the mark and think ethically and profoundly about what they're doing and why they're doing it. From way back in school, we're actually telling them not to do that.

Anne: I think that's coming through in some of the more recent surveys with CEOs who recognise that business isn't trusted anymore, that they're not trusted, and this is a public perception of them. So this authenticity thing to your point comes through and as someone that has been sent home from work, on several occasions, for being dressed inappropriately including wearing trousers, it's really a very confronting issue for me. How does that affect how I work? So I think the trust and authenticity of the leadership starts to become instead of the spin doctors putting out their press releases and ghostwriting these guys and girls have to step up and make a stand around what that is. 

Euan: And what's really fascinating for all the horror that is Trump, what's fascinating is he is exposing that and the fact that we're working stuff out for ourselves and at the moment it's slightly more brutal and people are running around and polarising in all sorts of horrible stuff. But it is pushing people to realise that they do have to work out for themselves more - what's true, what's not, what's right, what's wrong. 

Kai: This change towards a digitised digital world - what's the dark side for organisations and their workplaces? 

Anne: I think there's a dark side to everything. I think there's opportunities for people to be exploited and manipulated in ways that are not nice. You see it a bit now. I think that can be amplified if everybody is not aware that that opportunity is there. The stalking type concept. They're watching everything I do if I don't like enough posts on the intranet therefore I will be measured on that. There's a lot of really dark stuff that could be used against us. 

Kai: So if the culture does not support this we're creating a digital panopticon and people adjust their behaviour in ways that might not be what we want from the response of an agile workforce? 

Euan: Yes you may have seen the story about the computer scientists who are supporting Trump with Cambridge analytics and their ability to use bots to steer sentiment online. But then equally I was reading an article recently about if democracy's struggling and appears to be broken, could we grope our way towards algorithmically based democratic processes in which case if we do step up to the mark, and my big thing is about people saying what they think more confidently online and be more tolerant of other people doing that. If we get anywhere near that idealistic state then our mechanisms for power will begin to change. But I'm very concerned that at the moment we've got so many parallels with authorities and the way things happened and the good men stood by while evil was carried out that we could go through a very rocky couple of decades if we're lucky. 

Anne: And the online networks are sort of creating this pool of ignorance - what you see what you like is fed to you through all your networks and that supports and reiterates that ability to open is not there. 

Sandra: I think there is also sort of an insidious dark side. The fact that being a digital leader or being a leader in general is becoming a lot more difficult. I want to come back to your point around authenticity and how that becomes a much easier proposition because we can get online and we can say what we think and be ourselves. But it also becomes a little bit more difficult because leadership used to not only be what I am but what I aspire to be and that is no longer seen as authentic enough because I'm not that but I want to be that I want to become that. So it makes authenticity a very static concept rather than a dynamic one. I want to put out there lets see tweets that make me sound better than I am not because I want to portray myself that but because it's aspirational. 

Anne: So it becomes contrived. 

Sandra: It becomes contrived and people see it as contrived even though it's like the smile therapy - smile and you will feel better but you try to be better. It also implies that we do have fundamentally one authentic self and that notion we know is contested from research and is contested in that I might have one authentic self with my grandparents or my parents and a different one that I portray to my students when I want to be vulnerable and a different one that I portray to the public. So I think it becomes a lot harder to be authentic. 

Euan: And the old contrast between the online world and the real world is very problematic because as you say "which real world?” you know we inhabit very different ones even in the same room even in the same skull. And again it's I think about being more educated more smart about how we use the different tools in different situations for different reasons and for some of us who've been at this for...I was just looking at this other day, my first question on the Internet was 22 years ago. I've been learning this for 22 years. Some people have kept away from the internet until now, until Facebook. They think Facebook is the Internet so we ought to be tolerant of them learning and trying to catch up rather than sneering at them. And I think that's where business schools can help us help people adapt to those different types of metrics, dynamics, and challenges.

Sandra: Be more critical about the choices that they make around consumption. 

Euan: Totally and we're moving away from consumption. The challenge we have at the moment, and I was part of the game because I was in the BBC for 21 years, we've trained people to be passive consumers. So then they get bewildered when suddenly nobody is telling them the truth anymore. 

Kai: I agree. And the same applies to workplaces. Beginning in our schools we've trained people to listen and repeat rather than to create for example and think. 

Euan: I get people pushing back against me for being unrealistic expecting people to think especially at work. I've had that said to me several times. 

Kai: So we've touched on many things. Unfortunately I don't think we're going to solve all those problems here today. To wrap things up, can I ask each one of you to give me one thing that leaders can do to make their organisation more digital, to prepare the organisation to become more responsive to have those workplaces that we talked about.

Euan: I was asked this question recently with a group of senior business people and my response was care about it because there's such a degree of change. And it will take consistent, tough, passionate effort to make it happen. And I see too many people who really don't care that much at the moment.

Anne: This isn't something you can endorse and say yes we're going to do it. I think it's now about getting in and participating. And to Sandra's earlier points like really understand how people are using it and care about it but it's not a spectator sport. So do more than just endorse it. 

Sandra: I think to round it up care about it, actually do it, and also learn about it learn from people doing it not from theoretical accounts of how this is done but learn how people are actually doing it. 

Kai: Care, be involved and learn. You've heard it here first. Thank you so much Euan, Sandra and Anne. Thanks for the conversation today.

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