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Robots versus humans: the battle for leading the future of work

Strengthening your leadership skills will help you navigate the new digital landscape, says Wisework Partner and collaborative leadership expert Jeremy Lewis

The digital revolution will not be televised

Whether you are digitising post-sales customer support, introducing robotic process automation (RPA) into your back-office, or enabling customers to self-serve through online portals or apps on their phones, it is likely you are feeling some anxiety and stress from the ever-increasing exposure to digital technology on your business.  

Today’s leaders are expected to empower their teams and deliver digital transformation at the same time.  The digital revolution will not be televised to be re-run later, so you can pick over it and learn the lessons in hindsight. The digital revolution will be live.

What is the need for human leaders?

Commentators suggest we are drowning in new ‘always on’ technology that pervades modern life.  At work, this is not simply a technology matter, but rather an issue that goes to the core of what it means to be a leader.

In his most recent book, Conquering Digital Overload, Wisework’s Peter Thomson examines the effects on core activities that were once the preserve of human leaders: providing support, focusing on results, seeking different perspectives and solving problems.  

Thomson and his co-authors explain how the digital revolution is stripping away the need for expert human leadership.  When the internet can provide knowledge and empower groups of people to find their voice, they ask, what is the need for human leaders?

Could a robot become a leader?

The leaders who survive and thrive the digital revolution will work across organisational boundaries by putting their customers at the heart of their business processes.  This means that businesses can best embrace digital transformation by using technology and artificial Intelligence to help prioritise customers’ needs and directing them towards appropriate services 24/7.  Research by Oxford University suggests 47% of UK jobs will be lost to digitisation by 2050.  Thankfully, you’ll still need ‘the human touch’ to coordinate - or ‘lead’ - the delivery of those services.

This means we need more and better-quality collaboration, and the ability to lead the whole system.  Robots cannot do that, not yet anyway.

Whole system leadership

Whole system leadership teams collectively attend to strategy, operations and relationships.  To do this effectively you need to develop a collaborative mindset and skillset in your leadership team.

I’ve helped several leadership teams in different sectors strengthen these skills through coaching and set-piece development.  Agile leaders are already deploying live strategy frameworks and investing in efficient shared services and digitisation to ensure their strategy remains flexible and responsive to emerging customer needs.

The most effective leaders I speak to are also explicitly working on their relationships.  This investment includes developing value-adding relationships with key customers, suppliers and other partners by becoming truly collaborative.  It also includes engaging colleagues in a vision of how digital technology can improve their working lives and the quality of the services they provide and investing in skills to deliver those services excellently in a digitised world.

Now is the time to develop your leadership skills

To be ready to lead the digital transformation of your business, it is more important than ever to develop a collaborative mindset and keep your leadership skills current and relevant. 

We can’t afford to wait for others to show us the way.  And so - if not you, then who will navigate the complexity of leading a digitally augmented workforce?