Leadership Needed for a Different Age

Spare a thought for the current generation of executives. In these frenetic times, leaders are constantly scanning markets, monitoring competitors and listening to customers, all with the healthy fear that a recent tech innovation or a well-capitalized start-up could blindside and rip a business model to shreds. The pace of competitive change is brutal and shows no sign of slowing down.

What’s clear is that competitive advantages are now short-lived. Excellence in customer experience or service innovation is now achieved in a matter of weeks rather than months. Leaders know they need to raise the corporate metabolism for innovation but the question is: how? Search around and you will find hundreds of leadership tools and frameworks but after reading them, they seem written for a different age. Business value increasingly accrues from data, algorithms, platforms and artificial intelligence as the physical and virtual fuse together. Leadership models need an update for the digital age.

My take is the leadership challenge isn’t intellectual. We all know what needs to be done. Our newly minted book from the Center for the Future of Work walks through what we call the work ahead with a solid plan. Presciently, the book is called What to Do When Machines Do Everything and the title nails it—what do YOU do when machines eat into knowledge work? How will YOU organize your unit/team/organization for innovation? What will automation and artificial intelligence do to YOUR work? The book offers a strong counter view to the doom and gloom that currently surrounds us; and it’s not a Pollyanna take on the future either. The book takes its cue from the golden ages that accompanied those other big, hairy economic shifts (canal-mania, the steam age and the coming of the railways). The challenge for the current class of leaders isn’t so much intellectual, but how to engage and lead people through the digital shift.

So the leadership challenge is about engaging the organization and ensuring it moves in step with the times. Employees will need to recognize the looming changes ahead and organizations need to build the mechanisms that speed up innovation, open-up creativity, free-up decision making, and rework how work works. Our recent study on the future of talent led us to state that command and control structures and long decision cycles would kill digital. We discovered that companies were beginning to co-locate smaller teams together (often apart from the mother ship) around a specific customer need, product or service. Leaders need to be open minded and experiment with new organizational models and how different leadership styles will reflect new sources of value and commercial relationships with partners, customers and of course, employees.

We are all dealing with more complex and diverse work roles than five or ten years ago. The real challenge is how to prepare your firm for the changes ahead and to figure out what role your company will play and what role leaders have to play to get there. I can twitter on about platforms, automation, innovation and agility as much as I like, but recognize it’s going to be culture that makes or break your company’s future.
P.S. You will hear a lot more from me about leadership as we travel through these uncertain, chaotic and thrilling times. Two key questions for established and challenging leaders is this: Is your organization reaching its full potential? And what role will do you believe your will company play as the Work Ahead moves into view? Please stay in touch as we explore both of these issues.


'Fear of Automation' is 'Fear of the Future' for Asia's Digital Economy

Hardly a week goes by without distressing news of automated machines displacing humans from the workforce. If questions such as “what will happen to my job when so much can now be automated?”, “How should my company be structured in an era of AI, bots, and algorithms?”, and “how will my kids thrive when computers can out-think, out-work, and out-manage them?” are bothering you – you’re not alone.

In a survey, we found that almost 70% of the Asia Pacific executives we spoke to do not feel that new technologies could protect them from being replaced by a bot. They are reluctant to leverage machines to augment their job efficiency, as they feel less than positive about what digital means for the future of their jobs. In addition, only 40% feel that the digital revolution will help them to work faster, be a better leader, and communicate more effectively. Automation is a disruptive force that is transforming every industry and raising far-reaching questions about the work that people can do and the future relationship between man and machine. This is a scary business!

Services sector jobs, which were largely immune during the final stages of globalization, are now at risk — thanks to advancements in robotics and high-end engineering. As a result, Asian leaders believe that they must acquire technical skills to stay competitive, as well as working harder and for longer hours, to beat the “bots.” I believe that this view reflects cultural sentiments. In many Asian organizations, the pervading belief is that if you are not spending at least 12 hours a day at work, you are not being productive. Their employees believe that spending more hours at work means that they are more visible and more valuable. Spending fewer hours at work, in contrast, is seen as lazy and underperforming.

Relax! Things will not be that bad

Fear is an inevitable consequence of anything new and unfamiliar. When the “information highway” opened back in the early 1990s, it caused a wave of fear over the erosion of data privacy and control, not to mention the issues of intrusion and hacking. In spite of all the concerns about companies tracking people’s information online, few swore off the Internet entirely. In fact, quite the opposite has been true: smartphones and social media have become permanent fixtures in many of our lives. While every new technology introduces new risks, they rarely halt the unstoppable waterfall of game-changing innovations. Once a new technology has been assimilated, we stop drawing attention to its perceived downside. However, we have yet to reach this stage with advanced automation.

So, how to beat the bots? Well, you don’t need to. In fact, the future consists of working in tandem with machines to succeed. Machines may help improve productivity, but they cannot come up with the ideas that move businesses forward. What they can do is add efficiency to many of the activities performed by individuals. Leaders must consider the following suggestions to get ahead of the game in terms of what it means to be truly digital.

Unlearn 65% of the past

The future of your career will not be determined by your last job title, but instead will be based on the new skills you can develop for the path ahead of you. However, only 35% of Asia Pacific executives — compared with the global average of 60% — feel they need to be more focused on learning skills.

Changing business models often translate to skill set imbalances. With this in mind, robots and machine learning are likely to challenge workers to focus on new skills and adjust to rapid changes in core job skillsets. This trend requires organizations to acquire and nurture the skills that are not only required today, but also fit tomorrow’s needs.

Double down on human-centric skills

One of the biggest impacts of the ever-increasing pace of digitalization is the sweeping changes that will be made to jobs and the skills required to do them. Rote tasks, which still represent a substantial proportion of most people’s day-to-day work, will be hoovered up by machines, freeing up our time and energy to ask deeper questions, carve out more promising pathways, and generate more impactful innovations. What all of this means is that the future of our work will be more strategic.

Analytical and global operating skills are already vital for business success, but in the coming years, these traits will become even more central to maintaining organizational relevance for the work ahead. As Alphabet’s Eric Schmidt rightly notes, “the biggest issue is simply the development of analytical skills. Most of the routine things people do will be done by computer, but people will manage the computers around them, and the analytical skills will never go out of style.”

Human skills that require constructive thinking (such as teaching, creating art, performing R&D, and comforting patients) will continue to be in demand in the future. Innovation, leadership and strategic thinking will also be critical, and could never (at least for the next several years) be replaced with robot technology. Unusually, Asia Pacific executives ascribe relatively less importance to these skills. This is a red flag, as it demonstrates that many Asian employees and businesses have not yet fully thought through how to take advantage of the opportunities — and mitigate the risks — produced by the new wave of technologies.

Practice ‘collaboration,’ as you can’t win the digital game alone

Asian leaders are less than half as likely as their global peers to believe that digitalization will help them to collaborate more effectively (and gain a career advantage). Collaboration — the key mantra of work in the digital era — is at odds with the hyper-competitive nature of businesses during times when Asia Pacific economies are expected to deliver slower growth than in the past.

Digital is inherently collaborative and is about equalizing power structures through the democratization of information. Whether management likes it or not, leaders who recognize that collaboration is the key to business success will increasingly be in demand in the digital workplace. In addition, while many leaders believe that they can achieve collaboration by simply installing collaboration software, that is far from the case. Collaboration is not about platforms or technology; it is, at heart, about engaging people in a shared journey that can transform a business from the bottom up and break down internal barriers.

Business leaders have to lead by example; for instance, they should spend at least 20% of their time ensuring that there is an atmosphere of collaboration at work — in other words, one full day of their “regular job” per week. Yes, that’s right: with the magnitude of the ongoing changes, this is the minimum investment your organization must make. Fostering collaboration is a work skill that will be in great demand in the near future, and your organization must be ready.

It’s time to dismiss fear of automation as needless paranoia. In fact, the fear around digitalization signals a tremendous opportunity for Asia-Pacific business leaders to innovate and change perceptions of technology. Leaders who fail to leverage the new phenomenon out of fear will encourage counterproductive thinking and decisions that are detrimental to their business.

Robots aren’t coming – they are already here!

Image credit: Ron Codd

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Why We Deserve More for Our Data

Unless you live in a cave and have never touched a smartphone or computer, you may already know that it’s impossible not to leave a personal data trail while navigating the digital world. The invisible cookies are always watching our activities and algorithms making suggestions for the benefit of the digital economy. And now with connected devices, our society will be awash in data soon.

Companies have been busy minting money by monetizing our personal data. In return, we get to use their app, website, or service for “free,” but with advertisements. Targeted ads are now commonplace on Facebook. It’s not a surprise that a bulk of its revenue comes from advertisements. On the other hand, data brokers, such as Acxiom Corp., collect hundreds of data points per person for millions of people worldwide. The company processes over 50 trillion sales transactions/ year by selling consumer data multiple times to multiple customers without our knowledge. There is no way we can find out where our data is stored and how it is being sold behind the curtains.

This raises some important questions: Is this a fair trade-off in which we get access to free services and in return companies make a fortune? Will companies be willing to share even a micro-percentage of their revenue with us to make the trade-off justified? And, what’s the future of information sharing? The gap between companies’ wealth and what we get in return will continue to widen. This has to change. So, what’s the solution? I think we can address this issue by flipping it on its head.

We really need to start recognizing the value of our data. We have to think of all data created by us as our personal property, not that of the company that collected it. It’s already happening. Companies like Datacoup sell your anonymous data for real money. The pricing is based on market fluctuations; users choose to sell their data at any moment to the company, which then resell it to third parties at a competitive price. Also, concepts like citizenme are gaining momentum. The company aims to liberate your personal data and make artificial intelligence accessible to everyone. You are in control of your data and discover what it says about you, and you can choose to exchange it with a company. And, your data always remains anonymous and aggregated. In fact, 72% of consumers surveyed feel that cash rewards will motivate them to share their personal data with companies.

It’s not in distant future that we may start signing ‘personal data contracts’ with companies which will bring transparency upfront in terms of:

  • Where is my data stored?
  • What information on me is collected?
  • How is my data being used?
  • How much I get paid?
  • What are my options if I want to revoke my data and terminate the contract?

What about privacy then? Well, it’s conditional. We are witnessing events like ‘data privacy day’ happening and regulations gradually taking shape across the world. But at the heart of the debates about data privacy today, there lies a mirage—an assumption that digital regulations will address the privacy-related issues OR we should develop self-control in protecting our privacy online OR companies should be more cognizant of our privacy.

First, the law will never catch up. Regulations are always behind the curve compared with technological advancements. While digital regulations will evolve at their own pace across geographies, they should not be considered as the only resort for protecting consumer data.

Second, let’s face it—while we generally voice a desire for privacy, we are also very open with the information we share about our lives online. In fact, 77% of us view social media platforms as critical to maintaining social relationships. In spite of all the concerns about companies tracking our information online, few people swore off the Internet entirely. Human conversations are being replaced with ‘updates’ and ‘likes.’ We are still very likely to disclose personal information online, download apps, upload images, and follow free sites. The truth is that we tend to focus more on the benefits we’ll get out of the activity online, than the risk of engaging in it and this will not change in the future either.

And third, many companies believe that they have done their part by publishing privacy and security policies. But more than half of consumers see the densely packed text in the “terms and conditions” popup, think “This is Greek to me,” and skim past it to press the “I ACCEPT” button. No matter how hard we try to protect our information, it’s almost impossible to do it. Almost 50% of consumers surveyed agreed that there is no data privacy in the digital world, with everything being online.

I believe the notion of “privacy” will undergo a radical change over the next 10 years. We should have a ‘Delete’ button that allows us to be in full control of our data. It’s up to us to decide what we choose to disclose or not disclose about ourselves, and in which contexts, and with whom. It may be that what is seen as the unethical sale of data today will be acceptable tomorrow. As consumers become more educated about how companies are using their data, they might be willing to assume more risk in exchange for more value than simply a personalized experience or a free service. This kind of trade-off, called the give-to-get ratio, will be the new norm for privacy in the future.

We surely need open and honest conversations about the future of information sharing, and how we want our data to be traded in the dynamic digital economy because we deserve more for our data.