Companies that begin life digitally operate differently from the incumbents they threaten and unseat. Employees at digital companies don’t waste time gathering and analyzing information; they use live data to make decisions. They don’t need to wade through organizational hierarchies to get permission to act; their leaders explain business goals and then empower them to use their best judgment.
To compete, incumbent companies have to transform not only decision-making processes and hierarchies that have hardened over decades but also the nature of leadership itself. The leadership strategies and behaviors that drove success in the knowledge economy aren’t sufficient to navigate a successful transition to the digital economy.
Two-thirds of Global 2000 CEOs will center their business strategies on digital transformation by the end of 2017, according to IDC. But few business executives today have the leadership mindset or skills necessary for these strategies to succeed, according to the Leaders 2020 study conducted recently by SAP, Oxford Economics, and McChrystal Group. The study found that only 16% of executives are ready to lead their companies through this transformation.
Leaders must lead differently if their companies are to transition to the digital economy and reap its rewards. In 10 years, for example, 75% of the companies that were listed on the S&P 500 Index in 2012 will have been replaced, according to a study by Innosight. Meanwhile, global competition is heating up. Rising disposable income in emerging economies has sparked the advent of new rivals—and in a survey by consulting firm Accenture, 70% of marketers in those economies expressed confidence in their ability to execute a digital business transformation. In mature economies, the figure was just 38%.
But it’s not too late to learn the essentials of digital leadership.
Fostering an organization whose employees have the skills, tools, authority, and information they need to make decisions in the moment begins with leaders who can formulate and communicate the digital mission. Randall Stephenson, chairman and CEO of AT&T, understands the forces driving digital transformation. Under his guidance, AT&T’s lines of business have expanded—both organically and through acquisitions—to include extensive digital operations, like DirecTV and potentially, as of press time, Time Warner, according to The New York Times. So even as AT&T continues to compete for market share against established and startup telecommunications providers, the company is going head-to-head against digitally based companies like Amazon and Google.
Every business must become digital and work in the cloud, but the change doesn’t merely mean making acquisitions, buying new technology, and rewriting org charts. A new digital workforce is needed as well to meet the transformation challenge. And like the companies they serve, the members of this new workforce will have to develop new abilities and prepare to take on new roles.
That reality is the impetus for Stephenson’s ambitious initiative to transform his company by transforming his team. Through a program launched nearly three years ago, AT&T is underwriting education and professional development opportunities for employees who are willing to pursue the studies on their own time. Those who take advantage of the offer can learn new computing skills that align with the company’s blueprint for digital transformation.
AT&T’s education plan shows the extent to which data is driving a profound change in employees’ daily tasks, functions, and core value to the company. Until recently, businesses sought knowledge workers who were capable of reviewing, assessing, analyzing, and disseminating data in support of decision making. But in the digital economy, companies must be able to respond in the moment to customer, market, and competitive changes.
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