Why we need good (digital) leaders

digital leadership

As with all aspects of our personal and professional lives, digital transformation is a prevalent force for change in the AEC industry. Digital innovations can help us create a built environment fit for today’s societies. The competitive imperative for firms to embrace digital change is now unquestionable.

But while the forces and inevitability of digital change are readily apparent, the burning question is what skills does society generally, and the AEC industry specifically, need in our new digital world? 

While ‘soft skills’ such as leadership are often viewed as add-ons in the digital journey, they are in fact critical in realizing the opportunities created by Industry 4.0 for the industry. At Digital Outlook, we focus on addressing this vital, but oft-neglected skill. We have worked with over 150 senior leaders across the globe, and some common questions and tips emerged from this work.

To learn more about leadership in the digital age, please refer to the chapter “Digital Leadership for the Built Environment” by the author as part of a Springer book Industry 4.0 for the Built Environment, edited by Marzia Bolpagni, Rui Gavina, and Diogo Rodrigo Ribeiro.

What is a digital leader?

The most common question we are asked is what a digital leader is. In answering this, we need to look beyond our traditional views of leaders as C-Suite executives or board directors.  Digital transformation disrupts the conventional hierarchies that exist within firms, so digital leadership doesn’t always equal seniority. Indeed, hierarchies are often reversed, whereby more junior members of staff or ‘digital natives’ have greater technological expertise, whereas more senior members of staff are often ‘digital immigrants’ and less familiar or comfortable with technology. Firms need leaders that recognise and respond to this tension. 

We also need to consider digital leadership at levels beyond the firm. Because digital innovations are created and realised through collaboration between individuals and often across organizations and industries, digital leadership is important in supply chains, industries and ecosystems. It is apparent at the policy level, where the widespread adoption of digital technologies can be effectively catalysed, as shown in the UK Government’s central role in effecting national BIM adoption. 

Of course, the answer to what a digital leader is differs in all of these contexts. Common to them all though is that good leaders inspire and motivate their people. 

Do we need different leaders for digital transformation?

Following on from this, we are often asked what makes an excellent digital leader distinct from a good traditional leader. To put it another way, what is different about digital, as opposed to conventional, leadership? The jury is out on this question. Some argue that digital leadership is no different from traditional leadership, while others that digital leadership demands a new set of behavioural traits in addition to traditional leaders. Our work with industry has led us to support the latter of these views: that digital leadership does indeed demand a new set of skills, which individuals need as well as those required by good traditional leaders. 

One of the most significant of these skills is digital literacy. This phrase was first used by Paul Glister in the late 1990s and refers to ‘mastering ideas, not keystrokes’. In other words, we don’t need our leaders to be experts in using digital technologies, but we do need them to have a sufficient understanding of the key ideas behind technologies. What digital literacy actually means will vary in different circumstances, dependent on what a leader needs to do. Still, a common principle is that they need sufficient know-how to make informed and robust decisions. 

Perhaps the other key difference is that we need change-oriented leaders. They need to be open-minded and adaptable. The rate of digital change is increasing, so linear, formal strategies usually don’t work very well. Importantly, digital leaders need to provide a ‘blame-free’ culture in which employees feel sufficiently safe to take the risks that are an implicit part of any digital innovation. When you are adopting innovations of any kind, the risk of failure is high. Digital leaders need to acknowledge this and foster a culture of experimentation and innovation. 

About the authors

Together the authors are founders of Digital Outlook. Their backgrounds are united by interest and expertise in change in the built environment. 

Dr. Bethan Morgan

Dr. Bethan Morgan combines extensive management experience with substantial expertise in the teaching and research of management and digital transformation in businesses. Her current interests include leadership for change, particularly in the construction industry, and she is involved in work relating to social and environmental values. She holds an EPSRC fellowship in the UK and was awarded her doctoral degree at UCL in technological adoption and organizational change.

Dr Eleni Papadonikolaki

Dr. Eleni Papadonikolaki is an academic and consultant, and her research interests lie at the intersection of management, social science, and engineering. Eleni’s research has been funded by InnovateUK, European Horizon programmes, and Project Management Institute (PMI). Eleni is an Associate Professor at University College London (UCL) and the Founding Programme Director of MSc Digital Engineering Management.
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