Digital Leadership Manifesto
Looking back from the end of 2013, it’s clear that something major has changed in the way our society operates. There is no clear marker for precisely when that change took place, and there probably never will be one. The change is the product of numerous related but independent changes in the capability and use of digital technology for capture, transmission, processing and presentation of information. The digital era has arrived – not as a thunderclap, but as a creeping osmosis that forever changes rules that may have previously seemed static. And while the change clearly began some years ago, it is far from done – we are in reality still in the early days, because we have only barely scratched the surface of what is possible through innovative, effective, efficient and acceptable use of new technology.
There are many technological threads to the change: ubiquitous high speed fixed and wireless broadband communications; unremitting miniaturisation of devices combined with equally unremitting improvement in capacity and performance of those devices; the Internet; cloud computing as an overarching concept that is underpinned by increasingly mature technologies which allow massive farms of data storage and processing systems to be seen and utilised on a seamless basis; and our ability to incorporate low cost digital sensors and control devices into just about anything.
But these technological threads, while fundamentally important, pale into insignificance as enablers of the digital era, when considered in the light of the core change that has taken place. That core change is the way that individuals and organisations in all corners of society are using technology to change the way that they operate, and to change the world around them.
No longer is what we once called information technology being used merely to automate and extend things we always did. Now, the evolved versions of that information technology are being used to enable us to do things that we could not, practically, do in the past. Digital automation has progressively given way to digital disruption and digital transformation. Existing enterprises strive to reinvent themselves while new enterprises continue to emerge, both seeking to serve markets and communities in ways that were previously conceived only in fiction. It is becoming abundantly clear that digital technologies are a pervasive and defining enabler of change – but it is also becoming increasingly clear that focusing on the digital technologies alone does not deliver successful change.
Through the last decade of the 20th century, concern emerged regarding the propensity of major IT projects to fail. The pattern of failure has continued and may indeed have grown well into the 21st century. Many organisations have become operationally dependent on their IT systems, to the extent that failure of a system for even a few moments can have serious consequences.
In parallel, we have seen emergence of concern and real issues regarding information security and privacy – challenges where society has encountered a real need to review and upgrade its rule books. For the first time, we are seeing organisations being disadvantaged, losing market and ceasing to exist because they failed to adapt to a marketplace that is changing through digital disruption.
Examination of a wide spectrum of issues associated with information technology reveals that, while there remain some aspects of technology that are not yet as stable as might be desired, the greater portion of issues that arise are due to matters that have little to do with the technology itself. Rather, the problems that we experience arise from unrealistic expectations of technology and insufficient consideration of the broader business and societal context in which the technology plays a significant, if not defining role.
Just over ten years ago, in 2003, Standards Australia commenced work on what should now be seen as a visionary project – to independently develop an advisory standard that would guide corporate leaders in their oversight of the use their organisations make of information technology. The resulting guidance, aimed to resolve the problem of business disruption arising from problems with information technology, was published in January 2005, as AS 8015:2005. Following substantial international interest, AS 8015 was fast-tracked to international standard status and republished with slightly revised wording as ISO/IEC 38500:2008.
The preface to ISO/IEC 38500:2008 states: “Most organizations use IT as a fundamental business tool and few can function effectively without it. IT is also a significant factor in the future business plans of many organizations.
Expenditure on IT can represent a significant proportion of an organization’s expenditure of financial and human resources. However, a return on this investment is often not realized fully and the adverse effects on organizations can be significant.
The main reasons for these negative outcomes are the emphasis on the technical, financial and scheduling aspects of IT activities rather than emphasis on the whole business context of IT use.”
It should be clear from the ISO 38500 preface that to be successful with their use of IT, organisations must address IT from a business perspective. Some organisations that have successfully adopted ISO/IEC 38500 frequently refuse to disclose any detail of how they have done so, because it has given them a competitive advantage. In many organisations that has successfully adopted ISO/IEC 38500, there is one clear theme – that information technology is regarded as an enabling resource for the business and that responsibility for its use lies with the business managers, not with the technology specialists.
The same theme is emerging in research that explores the behaviour of organisations that are successful in establishing or repositioning themselves for success in the digital era. Typically emerging from joint research venture between leading academic and consulting organisations, there is a very clear message that while digital (information) technology is enabling massive and disruptive change in virtually every field of human endeavour, the primary responsibility for planning, building and running the digital era business still lies firmly with the business leaders. Increasingly, we are referring to these business leaders as digital leaders, because they are the ones who have overall responsibility for the safe passage of their organisations through their digital emergence and/or digital transformation.
Thus, the guidance in ISO/IEC 38500 is totally relevant to organisations that are being affected by, or are involved in, digital disruption and digital transformation.
ISO/IEC 38500 is extremely compact and abstract. It requires those who use it to think hard and apply it to their circumstances. It doesn’t prescribe any specific implementation model, but it certainly guides the development of a model in which organisations make effective use of information technology.
There is an emerging issue with ISO/IEC 38500: the language and framing of the standard is arguably too narrow for the Digital Era. It was designed to guide directors in their oversight of information technology. While deeper thinkers can expand on the core guidance to also find relevant guidance for managers, there is now a clear need for a more broadly based re-presentation of ISO/IEC 38500 that addresses the needs of all who are involved in planning, building and running the future of any enterprise – be it long-established or completely new, private, public or government, profit oriented or not, small, medium or large.
The aim of Digital Leadership Manifesto is to bring ISO/IEC 38500 to life for everybody involved in the governance and management of organisations in the Digital Era, and in doing so, to provide guidance that will help them deal with the tension between the tasks of building a digital era business and managing digital era technology.
Those who are familiar with ISO/IEC 38500 will see immediately that this book follows the form of the original standard. It carries the same fundamental messages, but now spelled out more clearly in the context of digital transformation and digital leadership. It provides a broader context, focusing on what the organisation and its leaders should be doing, rather than just on the role of the governing body. Finally, it extends the model for governance of IT by connecting it more explicitly to the business context and landscape in which digital transformation is taking place for individuals, organisations, markets and whole economies.
The above is the draft preface for Digital Leadership Manifesto. Come back in soon - you may find more extracts and models from the book.