Leadership, Technology and The Internet of Things: Why Ignorance Is No Longer An Option

Laurent Corneille, IDG’s Head of Technology, believes that Technology is now so prevalent in our lives that any leader who claims ignorance or feigns disinterest risks being left behind and ultimately cast aside.

“We live in an uncertain world”; a platitude that causes me to bristle. It is the opening gambit of many a leadership conference the world over. It is a remark that may or may not precede the announcement of a major corporate reorganisation. It is often used by marketers to keep us unbalanced, forever teetering on the cliff’s edge as they jab us in the ribs with the middle finger of uncertainty whilst urging us to buy the rope with which to hang ourselves. After all, fear sells.

“So tell me something I don’t know”, thinks the jaded leader. “The world has always been an uncertain place and hearing this over and over isn’t making me lead any better”.

Yet, here’s the thing. “We live in an uncertain world” should not be left to waft over a sagely nodding audience in anticipation of the main event. Unpack and unwind it: we live in an uncertain world because of the speed of the change that is occurring to all of us on the planet, at the same time.

In their book No Ordinary Disruption R. Dobbs, J. Manyika and J. Woetzel postulate that humanity is at the confluence of four colossal tributaries of change, each crashing into the other in complex and chaotic ways while mankind sits atop in an inflatable dinghy, navigating the perilous waters, guided by Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand. These amplifying “Disruptive Forces” are: Urbanisation; Technology; An Aging Global Population and Connections.

At first glance, it would be easy to dismiss such work as the latest in a long line of books about globalisation, not dissimilar to Thomas Friedman’s excellent The World is Flat. So I’ll spare you the price of the book, for here is the spoiler: the world is changing quickly. Very quickly indeed. Much more quickly than ever before, and understanding this will make you a better leader.

Let us focus on technology for the sake of brevity. The fireside image of the leader who can barely use a USB stick is fast losing its appeal. Warren Buffet may get away with it but few others do. Harry Redknapp, the ridiculed ex-Premier League football manager told police who were investigating allegations of fraud in 2012, that he didn’t know how to work a computer, send text messages from a mobile phone, and stared vacantly into the bottom of a cup of tea when asked what an email was. One could argue that this trinity of ignorance contributed to the slow death of his career and the rise of his brand as an anachronistic leader, weighed down by outmoded ideas in a world of advancing sports science and continually evolving tactics.

Observe Hilary Clinton as she shifts uneasily in her seat. At the time of writing, Mrs. Clinton and her team are citing a lack of understanding of how emails are classified for an imbroglio which could potentially ruin her shot at the presidency of the United States. Trust is eroded if mistakes appear deliberate. Pleading technological ignorance is no longer an excuse.

This is not to say that one must know what Raspberry Pi is (though one really should) or subscribe to Wired magazine (it’s a good read). An enormous amount of noise generated by the tech industry is of little or no consequence to the majority and quite frankly, few leaders (and non-leaders) have the time to parse daily tech news for rumours about the latest server specs and database software, even if company money is spent there.

Nevertheless, to see the tech industry as mere manufacturers of semi-conductors and/or pale IT specialists is far from correct. The tech industry is the fashion industry. It is science, medicine and wellbeing. It is transportation and security. It is communications and knowledge. It is the voice piece of the disenfranchised and an enabler of extreme violence and propaganda. It is everything and everywhere. We live in the age of the algorithm and as a leader, avoiding the most basic understanding of this new cultural language is no longer an option. It really isn’t.

The Internet of Things (IoT) is in its infancy but will soon be reducing our energy bills. Silicon Valley’s move into autonomous cars is creeping into mainstream consciousness while machine learning is already recommending the films we watch. Drones will soon be delivering our pizzas, crypto-currency will overflow from our digital wallets and Virtual Reality will, as of 2016, become a retailed reality. To be a good leader is to make sense of the environment in which one lives. If that environment is evolving by the second, more effort must be made to understand it, remain up to date, remain #engaged.

The rate of technological expansion is causing cracks to appear as the crusty old mantle of the pre-2008 world stretches like the skin of an inflating balloon. For some, the fissures appear as yawning chasms of uncertainty. For others, they are vast expanses where new ideas can be set free. Plant a small seed here and harvest a billion dollars in a year’s time. In this universe, leaders have taken the time to understand the proverbial USB stick. They serve the people they lead by understanding the people they lead, and those people are now more often than not, Millennials. Barring a rip in the time-space continuum, this is not a trend that is set to reverse.

If you are in the former group who need help from IT to install Excel, do yourself a favour and figure it out on your own. When that task has been accomplished, play with your mobile phone. Understand its full capability as a marvel of modern technology and the horizon will instantly appear broader. Don’t grow jaded before your time. Push the boundaries of your mental dexterity. Ask, seek, knock. Your brand as a leader is at stake.

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