Future managers have to be digitally literate, irrespective of function
The world today is going through what can be called a digital transformation. This is revolutionising the way we live — how we communicate, consume, use time and work. The digital revolution is driven by technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), cloud computing, big data, IoT (Internet of Things) and robotics, leading to tremendously enhanced levels of connectivity and automation. It is the extent and speed of change that makes digital unique. The IT revolution enhanced productivity; digital leads to new, disruptive business models that threaten to throw out existing ways of doing business. Uber is a not just better than traditional taxi services; it is a new tech and intelligence-based business model that has completely transformed this industry (and self-driven cars are yet to go mainstream!). Paytm is not an incremental improvement on a banking process — it is a paradigm shift in the business of payments.
Businesses will have to quickly understand, respond to and exploit the new digital environment. They have to rethink fundamentals — value, data, customers, competition, innovation — and create an organisation that looks and works very differently from the current one. While some industries are adopting the digital way faster than others, eventually all functions across all industries will have to embrace it to stay relevant.
And what are the implications of the digital revolution for the human workforce? AI and automation are threatening to take away millions of jobs — not just routine, manual, blue-collar work but also cognitive white-collar work. Many jobs will also be created but those will require skills different from the ones the workforce is equipped with today. All levels of work will have to grapple with this phenomenon, including the large managerial community.
What then are the capabilities managers must have to survive in the digital world? In addition to traditional skills, the digital age manager will need some hard skills — data skills and technical skills — as well as soft skills.
Data is being generated at unheard of levels by organisational systems, machines and individuals. Sophisticated technologies enable collection and analysis of data, making data the basis for competitive advantage — and thus the “new oil” of the economy. Increasingly, decisions across functions will become primarily data-driven, minimising the role played by “feel”, intuition or wisdom of experience. A capable manager, therefore, must be proficient in understanding and working with data. A sound knowledge of basic mathematics, statistics and a familiarity with data are mandatory for a manager in a digital world. A HR manager is expected to understand and work intelligently with a predictive model that helps bring down attrition, thereby saving huge sums of money.
Traditionally, technology skills have been the domain of the IT department. Managers have typically used the services of the centralised IT department to offer better products and services to their customers. In a digitalised organisation, however, technology touches every process and drives every decision. Managers are no longer mere consumers of IT — they need to roll up their sleeves and delve deep into the technology that is threatening their jobs.
Comprehending how a business works, and conceptualising how technology can transform customer value and delivery require a more than pedestrian understanding of the components of digital architecture. A young manager entering the workforce today will therefore be better placed if he or she has basic programming skills and a working knowledge of cloud, IoT, business analytics, digital marketing and related concepts. A marketing manager is pretty much useless if he or she does not appreciate concepts such as search engine optimisation (SEO), Google analytics and similar tools that help her target the appropriate customer with the correct product at the right place and time. All managers of the future have to be digitally literate, irrespective of function.
At our institute, we have introduced Business Analytics Management as a core course for all PGDM students — they have to write code in SQL and Python and learn the basics of data science. There is a one-year specialisation in Digital Business Management and Data Science as well.
The digital revolution is, however, not just about data and technology. It is also about disruption, transparency, creativity, co-creation, blurring of organisational boundaries. Traditional sources of power and importance in an organisational set-up are being dismantled surely and quite quickly. Managers who wish to chart successful careers in this world will have to be temperamentally different from their predecessors. They will need to be:
Quick learners: The most critical skill will be the ability to learn — quickly, on the job, on your own. Concepts and business models will become obsolete by the time you master them — and you can’t go back to school every time. You have to learn how to learn
Good communicators: Communication will, as it always does, assume pole position in handling the Vuca (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world. The ability to listen and absorb, ask the right questions, collaborate and present complex concepts in easy-to-understand ways are skills every manager will need to possess
Drivers of transparency: The digitalised world is characterised by empowered employees and customers who demand transparency and immersive communication. Customers want to know your production processes, employees may protest against your value choices. Managers have to embrace openness to build trust and respect.
Comfortable with uncertainty: Technology and business models are getting disrupted every day. If you cannot thrive in an environment which is essentially unstable, working in the digital future can become a nightmare.
To create such managers, B-schools should emphasise strengthening of concepts over learning by rote. This is more likely to create people who are ready for the disruptions that we will have to face as we move into what have been affectionately called the “Roaring Twenties”.
The writer is co-founder and director, Praxis Business School Foundation, Calcutta