Determining how a business continues to transform, grow and innovate is becoming increasingly overwhelming for leaders. Underpinning this is a pressing need for capability uplift to ensure businesses are future-focused and primed for the unknowable future.
In the final Future Led conversation for 2023, our panel tackled the topic of our digital reality and considered the many elements at play, including organisational strategy, people, culture, skills, investment in technology, as well as understanding data and emerging technology.
Joining our panel for this discussion was:
- Tim Wark, Global AI Lead at AECOM
- Pauline Fetaui, Director at ACS Innovation Labs
- Tracy Whitelaw, Chief Digital Officer at Local Government Association of Qld and CEO of HavenXR
- Micheal Axelsen, Senior Lecturer and Deputy Director of Teaching and Learning at UQ
- Ray O’Sullivan, Head of Transformation at Liquid.
So, how do leaders find a balance between making decisions for the far-flung future versus managing the here and now? The answer, perhaps, is already in front of us.
(L-R Liquid's Ray O'Sullivan, Tim Wark, Pauline Fetaui, Tracy Whitelaw, Micheal Axelsen)
The challenge facing leaders
The panel unanimously agreed the biggest challenge facing leadership isn’t an emerging, unknowable technology. In fact, it isn’t any different to the challenge we face today.
For Tracy, whose work focuses on enterprise digital transformation, it's all about keeping up with people and their expectations.
“When you go to work, you go from basically being the Jetsons at home to being the Flintstones at work. Your systems are slow, there are legacy issues and poor integrations. Your user experience is terrible,” she said.
“I think the challenge is going to be the same in 15 years [as it is now]. User demands move so quickly that organisations struggle to keep up. And so, I think it’s a cultural shift and probably a people shift that needs to happen.”
Applied to the higher education context, Micheal said that universities are facing a disconnect between the student learning experience and their expectations. Universities need to consider how they’re equipping students and staff with the right skills for a rapidly changing future.
While we don’t know which technologies are going to provide the paradigm shift we so often talk about, he says “we need to set [students] up to be curious about technology and how it can be used, but also prepared to completely discard that technology and move on to the next when they find a better tool … The responsibility comes down to setting them up for the future world they’re going to face.”
Focusing on the customer reality
How can businesses balance short-term decision-making with being ambitious and bold enough for the long term, when they can’t necessarily see the future customer experience they need to build?
As a leader in digital innovation and start-ups, Pauline believes that businesses need to focus inward. “It's not that challenging to imagine what your customers need if you get intimate with them. Leaders are so focused on the future that they’re not present, they’re not in touch with their customer.”
“Leaders need to be more accountable and responsible for their learning and education in what’s happening with their customers, not focused on the technology. Technology will come and go.”
Larger organisations are struggling most with adapting to change at the necessary speed, with bureaucracy weighing down their ability to be nimble, make decisions and implement solutions, leading to a disconnect from their customers.
As founder and CEO of HavenXR, a virtual reality studio, Tracy said that smaller, more agile organisations necessarily risk more by reacting quickly and making snap decisions, but in doing so they’re able to deliver timely products to their customers.
“Is there going to be technical debt to pay? Maybe. But those are the things we’re willing to risk and try, whereas I think generally in larger organisations, you don’t always get the freedom to be as loose as you do in start-ups”.
While the panel acknowledged big organisations have more to lose, they nevertheless need to embrace a more agile and fluid approach.
Embedding trust in the workplace
The key to developing a nimbler approach is allowing people the opportunity to experiment and find value in new and emerging technologies.
“Digital should always operate like a start-up. You should always be nimble. You should have lean teams. You should be empowered to make decisions,” Tracy said.
As newly appointed Global AI Lead at AECOM, Tim advocates innovative technology as a key enabler for transforming operating models and delivering value to clients.
He noted that while it’s important to implement guardrails, people should be empowered to be as creative and productive with technology as possible.
The reality is that businesses aren’t going to be able to stop people from experimenting and using emerging technologies. Instead, leaders can focus on embedding a level of trust in the workplace with principles and guidelines for their use. The panel agreed this was integral to how businesses must change and evolve, or risk becoming irrelevant.
“I think we’ve probably seen the peak of the capitalistic big corporation model. We've seen massive companies that have fallen apart because their core business model has just stopped working. We’ve seen how start-ups can come in and completely disrupt a big corporate,” Tim said.
As a result, there’s increasing appreciation that businesses cannot stand still. We’re seeing a cultural shift, with more humble leadership styles and collaborative cultures, and a workforce that’s more open to ambiguity and change.
“All those things combined will make it easier for big organisations to take risks and change than in the past,” Tim said.
Balancing the issue of risk
While keeping up with the pace of change is not without risk, Pauline said leaders should avoid shying away from risk and instead educate themselves on how to properly mitigate them.
“What I find challenging, is that society has become a lot more focused on controlling the 20% risk associated with new technology because they don’t understand it," Pauline said.
“We need to educate leaders on how to calculate risk and how to start looking at the risk in detail, profiling it into something they understand. If you don’t know how to profile a risk and you lead with generalised assumptions without shoring up those assumptions, that’s just lazy.”
However, understanding and balancing risk has been made even more difficult with the layering of more bureaucracy and procurement processes in organisations.
“We’re now seeing problems that we haven’t seen before. The more bureaucracy you put in; you’re making a negative outcome inevitable. You’re locking in this loss of value because you’ve kept doing it the same way as you’ve always done it," Micheal said.
“Time’s going to move on and then you’re going to have to take a great leap forward to address this changed world that you’re in.”
Ultimately, the panel agreed that leaders need to be nimble and agile when it comes to future-proofing their business.
“For some, it’s just basic connectivity while not being naïve or ignorant to the more advanced customer expectation and emerging tech, and for others, it's all about ahead-of-the-curve adoption,” Ray said.
“Key to successfully navigating the bridge between the short- and long-term is a top-down change in leadership culture and a strong connection to what customers need, with the right structure in place to ensure people are trusted and have the autonomy to learn and make mistakes.”
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