Digital tools and disruptive technologies from artificial intelligence and machine learning to 3D printing, 5G, IoT, Robotic Process Automation, virtual and augmented reality are transforming communication, banking, HR, manufacturing, finance, medicine, agriculture and more. What are some of the latest tools and technologies? How will organizations harness cutting-edge developments for competitive advantage? And what are the qualities of the leader who cannot only guide organizations through this disruption, but also the disruptions no one has imagined, yet?

If it feels like we’ve had this conversation before, we have. But even in the midst of digital transformation we are moving beyond it, embarking on a reinvention that is not likely to settle into a next stage status quo. The new normal will likely be constant change.

Susan Steele is executive partner, global talent and engagement at IBM. “HR used to have to think about technology every 5-10 years. They’d have a look around, see what had changed since the last time, and work with their CIO to get a new system and that was all they had to do with technology for 5-10 years,” she says. “Now, they have to do that pretty much every day."

According to Raffaele Jacovelli, managing director of Hightech Partners, ITP in Brussels, the only thing we know for certain is that “things are going to change at a faster pace than ever seen before. And that’s why industries have to be able to anticipate change—to figure out beforehand the next move.” He says, “Between one industrial revolution and another, there was time for businesses to adapt and adjust. Today, there is no time to adapt, to make a plan, and get the team thinking about the business model or technology they’re using. Decision making has to be better, faster, and more practical.”

As organizations and leaders grapple with the constant change at an accelerating pace, Jon-Bart Smits, global technology practice leader with Stanton Chase, Amsterdam, glances back at the decades-long evolution of the foundation of today’s tech: the microchip. “When I look at emerging technologies, the underlying basis, what makes it all happen, is the few companies who make the chips, without which this all would not be possible.”


A Glimpse of What’s New

Every year, MIT Technology Review publishes a list of ten breakthrough technologies for the year. Some of those new tools for 2018 include:

  • Cloud-based AI, making machine learning broadly accessible
  • 3D printing using metal, which has the potential to transform manufacturing
  • A Toronto smart city in development that will have robotic trash removal and automated cars
  • The capability of analyzing the DNA of a newborn to measure her risk for developing cancer or Alzheimer’s, or her IQ
  • Ways to use technology to translate natural language, generate artificial images and sounds that humans can’t discern as fake, and expand the uses of quantum computing

There are practical implications for some of these technologies, for example, MIT Technology Review author Will Knight suggests “ultimately, researchers might use quantum computers to design more efficient solar cells, more effective drugs, or catalysts that turn sunlight into clean fuels.” And quantum computing is in the cloud.

“There are a lot of disruptive technologies on the horizon, and they’re impacting every single industry,” says Ryan Bulkowski, a partner in the artificial intelligence and digital practice at Heidrick & Struggles’ San Francisco office.

For Jacovelli, “There is not a single technology, per se, that is going to make a difference. The ongoing accelerated disruption is due to the combinatorial effect of many technologies coming to a maturity stage at the same time.”


Leading Through Transformation

“We believe that every CEO is a startup CEO.” Deepali Vyas is senior client partner for Korn Ferry’s financial services practice in New York, “what we mean by that is every CEO has to first, be a visionary; second, embrace technology; and third, have followership, where their employees believe that they can learn something from this person, or this person is going to help them grow and innovate.”

Jacovelli reflects on the new generation of talent. “They are very fast in adapting to new technologies, but it is a different story when it comes to building something new and different, and going beyond what they have, being imaginative. There are people like this, but they’re not the majority.” He adds, “There are few people with the DNA of a leader: determination, passion, and the ability to think out of the box, to innovate. In healthy companies that embrace transformation, what is key is to find people who have this kind of mindset.”

Jacovelli is not alone. Smits describes working with someone “who did not read email. He had his assistant print it out, he wrote his response on a piece of paper, and had his assistant type it into the computer.”

Smits adds, “Those kinds of people are never going to be able to be effective leaders in this day and age.” What does it take to lead past digital transformation through constant reinvention?

“Leaders today have to be able to work in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) environment. Every leader needs to understand that at times they have to be a “roll up your sleeves” hands-on team player, highly innovative, a strong visionary, and certainly be willing to embrace of all the change that is going on around them.”

Jacovelli considers that change. “Before, leaders relied on best practices to ensure you are predictable in what you deliver. Now you must have a completely different mindset: leapfrogging, boundary-pushing, bending the rules and writing new ones. Normally you didn’t want people breaking rules, you wanted them to be compliant.” Now, he says, “If you are compliant in all the existing ways of doing business, you’re going to miss the boat. Being open-minded, disruptive, adaptive, and flexible—those are qualities you need.”

For Bulkowski, a key leadership quality is “a willingness to learn on the part of the executive, regardless of their function.” For example, “how does an individual manifest a natural curiosity for consistently challenging their existing belief system and embracing new ways of thinking? Also, do the executives have the wisdom to surround themselves with people who may know more than they do, or who just bring a completely different point of view? That diversity of thought, which can originate from life experiences, background, age, and other exogenous factors, is incredibly important.”

Another quality may be a willingness to take a risk. Steele says, “An aspect of leadership in this new era is embracing agile methods. You may know ‘agile’ from software development, but when it applies to broader organizational design, it means being willing to launch things that are not fully formed, or what we call a minimum viable product, that continues to iterate and improve.”

She explains, “If you’re having to develop and innovate rapidly, you don’t have time to create everything perfectly. But you can get things out, get feedback, and continue to improve as you go.”

Bullis adds, “The CEO really needs to think about customers first—be a customer-driven CEO versus a product driven CEO, or even a sales-driven CEO. If you lead with what the customer need is, you will remain ahead. It’s hard to get behind if you let the customer lead you. That doesn’t mean that you do whatever the data predicts the customer wants. The Apples of the world demonstrated that: sometimes you build things that customers don’t even know they want. But if you follow your customer and the way your customer is thinking and acting and behaving, if you follow the way your customer is buying, you’re much more likely to stay relevant to that customer.”

Steele agrees. “Leaders increasingly need to have that empathy, that curiosity about what is it like being in my customers shoes, and what unarticulated needs do they have and how can we address them? Increasingly a very core approach is the ability to deploy design thinking principles in leadership. Design thinking is all about having empathy for the customer, for the end user of your services or products, and being very curious about how we can improve that experience. That is essential for leaders looking to embrace or leverage these new technologies.”

Smits reflects on the forward-thinking leader. "It’s important that a leader is always open to the possibility of what can happen, and always be open to what would be a game-changer, whether that is how you run an organization, how you run logistics, how you do sales, how you deal with people, how you select candidates." What else? "A leader should always be open to what technology can bring and not see it as an enemy, but more as an opportunity. That is an entirely important trait in leadership."


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