The cultural leadership shift at the dawn of a new industrial epiphany

Jason Sutton Profile picture for user Jason Sutton April 4, 2018
A cultural leadership shift to drive a people-first, services-centric future of work demands a complete industrial epiphany writes ServiceNow's Jason Sutton

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Technology has the potential to have a profound impact on how businesses operate, but a critical piece of the enablement engine is missing. To get to this near future, a cultural leadership shift needs to take place within the C-suite.

It’s time for us to get together and throw aside management layers so that we can create a new world of better work, better business and better life for everybody. To support the mass deployment of disruptive technology, business leaders need to drive people-first, services-centric adoption from the top and consider the real-world, ground-level changes that need to take place at the coal face of business operations.

If not quite a moment of personal revelation for every manager, this is perhaps a moment when a new industrial epiphany has come to the fore. We can change the way we work now. In doing so, we will make work itself work better for companies in every business vertical.

People at the heart of reivention

Let’s go back to basics for a moment. We have been applying orchestrated engineering to business systems since the first industrial revolution in the 1700s. But essentially there has always been a problem with that orchestration and it comes back to the way we treat people.

As soon as we apply higher-level systems to run ‘factory floor’ production processes, we lose some of the ability to see how workers operate, assess what they do best, learn about what challenges they face and understand how they feel.

The fact is, technology hasn’t always served companies very well in terms of its ability to extract the potential from their people.

Every worker on the front line of a warehouse, in a position of middle management or functioning as an executive in the field probably has a perspective on how to improve things. But in the era of modern business (or for the last 300 years at least), people have often been compartmentalised into a role that is too rigorously insulated.

We all know how tough modern business can be, so we need to start understanding what’s happening to the people we value most inside our businesses. Working professionals have become encumbered by technology and legacy business frameworks at a time when innovation and improvement wasn’t a priority. We need to show more care and attention to every worker.

Diversity and meritocracy for the win

The time to change that version of the past is now, as we all drive to bring this thing we call ‘digital transformation’ into existence.

Today, we have the opportunity to become exemplary leaders who champion gender diversity and systems of meritocracy that are based purely on ability, determination, performance and the potential to succeed.

To harness the value of people inside these business structures we need to engineer a new era of contemporary, data-driven operations. Technology can help us to identify, qualify and harness talent, wherever it exists.

We now have a responsibility to capture great ideas and innovations from internal teams (many of them perhaps not directly line-of-business facing) and the individuals closest to particular challenges.

Power of the people, to the people

I have mentioned diversity and meritocracy already, but let’s just restate the importance of allowing every person to flourish in the workplace on an equal basis.

The first industrial revolution replaced physical tools 300 years ago, so our workplace structures should now be architected for skills, ability and intelligence, not brute force.

The development of our future public sector, driven by citizen services, is another example where digital transformation truly needs to be transformative. This space needs to consider how it will attract younger, technically-competent people. We need to make public services provision, administration, management and development a compelling career choice.

Our public services govern the way we develop as humans. They really are that important. We need to convey the opportunity this gives young people to be the architectural engineers of our own future.

The same connected digitisation themes are being played out across all industry verticals and we’re seeing a particularly subtle revolution in the banking industry. In a world where consumer choice is directed by social platforms and freedom of information, banks have seen that they need to build a new type of connection and rapport with their customers by introducing customer relationship managers.

Banks can’t do this without retaining talent, so the same C-suite epiphany has to happen for these firms to stay afloat.

How to be a realistic  leader

If we accept the need to transform and look forward, we should first look to our leadership and examine what the C-suite itself is focused on. It is hard to specifically identify what a successful leader looks like, but today it’s about being ready for change and accepting that it’s not about trying to bring everyone along with you at the same time.

A good leader looks at his or her workforce and identifies who has the capacity, appetite and curiosity to drive for change. It’s about the leader saying, ‘I realise I’m not going to bring everyone along all of the time, but I’ll pick those people who have the hunger and drive to help me’.

That same leader then put those key facilitating ‘maker’ people in the places where change will have the most value, at the lowest risk and within the shortest amount of time.

The momentum driving these efforts has to crystallise into a form that is both familiar and intuitive to individuals. Corporate digital transformation programmes need to be delivered with a consumer-level presentation layer and function set. People have to positively want to use this technology, so it has to be compelling and easy to use – you could almost say we have to build ‘addictive’ apps.

As our maker-movement ‘change agents’ (call them what you will) start to physically and tangibly drive digital transformation, we can quite organically build new contemporary business structures that move way beyond the workflows and processes of the past.

When all this cultural shift really happens, then a new industrial epiphany comes of age and we start treating each other better professionally – and personally too.

There’s value to be gained for every employee if we stop now and think about how we are going to create the our new, modern business. It’s not an industrial sweatshop, it is a place of improvement, productivity, excitement and growth.

A cultural leadership shift is underway, today it’s time to get ready for tomorrow.

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