It's not enough to develop strategy and leadership skills for executives, says David Brown. Leaders would benefit from upskilling in technology, too.
What's holding back the effective use of technology in organisations?
In the 1960s, UK business schools were set up to address a deficit in managerial capabilities. Since then, we’ve spent years developing strategy and leadership skills for executives. That’s great, but today, there is a profound gap at the heart of many organisations, where managers are feeling anxious about their level of knowledge when it comes to things such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, big data, cyber security, blockchain and the internet of things. As a result, executives might not be making the best decisions. Or they might outsource these issues to consultants, or look to acquire other companies with the right talent. There’s nothing wrong with (most of) those options, as far as they go. But if executives are only doing that because they lack the capabilities themselves, it’s not ideal.
But aren't these just issues for the CTO or IT department to deal with?
Businesses don’t have technology, organisational behavioural or strategic problems in isolation. Commercial problems (or opportunities) are complex and interconnected. It’s often hard to say who is best-placed to deal with a particular issue. We need to find language that links complex areas and breaks down silos. For example, when banks are exploring how best to build new offers or ways of working, they should have questions around maths, cryptography, cyber security, regulation, ethics, brand, governance and culture. We coined the term “data artistry” to reflect that there isn’t just an analytics problem or a culture issue here – it’s both.
How can leaders help?
The starting point is to foster a thirst to learn. Peer learning, courses and reverse mentoring all have a place. But we need people to ‘do’ and not just ‘know’. Executives need to get comfortable playing with new technologies – and importantly, combinations of technologies – in cheap and simple ways. And they need to know how to develop experiments, specifying exactly what they are trying to prove each time. It’s not about turning executives into hard-core coders, it’s about having a sufficient grasp of technology so that they feel comfortable asking the right questions and constructively challenging the answers they receive. It’s important to start fostering a learning culture now or devastating capability gaps can creep up unnoticed. As Hemingway noted, things tend to go wrong slowly, then all at once.
David Brown is the director of executive education at Imperial Business School.