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Leadership in the Post-Digital World

by Mohi Ahmed, Dave Marvit, and Ryoma Ohashi

In the digitized world companies helped customers move from analog to digital. Then, in the connected world, companies identified and leveraged advanced digital technology for customers. Now, we are in the post-digital world and its realities are only slowly being understood by companies as well as customers.

Digital thinking – though certainly not digital technology – has run its course. The vision of the early digital pioneers has been achieved. We are (mostly) all connected. Digital technologies are woven into the fabric of our businesses and our lives. Most people now take digital infrastructure for granted. They expect, and receive, continual connection to family, friends and community; instant access to boundless knowledge; and constant awareness of local and world events. This much we know. But, the narrow focus on clear (if not simple) answers, the expectation of problems that can be defined and bounded yielding to single correct solutions, are no longer appropriate in a complex and interconnected world.

Make no mistake, digital technologies will be a critical part of solving the problems we face. But they will not solve it alone. Instead, we need to recognize that modern problems are woven across both digital and analog domains. Modern solutions inevitably have consequences well beyond the intended, and the binary worldview associated with digital thinking is no longer tenable.

We have entered the post-digital world. And in this world companies will activate and enable purpose-driven digital journeys with their customers. In the post-digital world, the focus shifts from the creation of the digital world (digitization and connection) to the products, services and behaviors that a digital world activates and enables. This requires future leaders with a new type of mindset. Their mindset must be focused on purpose-driven transformation. In turn, this requires a new skillset. Leaders must be able to reimagine, reinvent, and realize new kinds of business models. We are moving from a connected world to an inter-connected world; from attaching to a network to being part of an ecosystem.

What this means in practice is that leaders will require far greater awareness of the context in which they operate. They must be able to identify organizational and personal priorities by deeply understanding, and even serving, this context. “Wise leadership” (to borrow a phrase from Ikujiro Nonaka of Hitotsubashi University) demands an awareness of context. But context is blurry. It extends beyond boundaries. The edges of a business, a customer problem, or an offering are always going to be unclear. In a world as complex and interconnected as ours, the dichotomies and binary thinking that form the basis of digital thinking simply are no longer valid.

In a post-digital world, we need to recognize that context matters. This will have six elements:

1: Understanding data in context.
In the digital age, data was usually understood in isolation. Organizations created data largely because they could. How they interpreted and used the data was often unclear. In the post-digital era, data will be meshed with the organizational context. Such data can generate significant value only if understood and utilized in context. As with everything else, data does not exist in isolation.

2: Understanding the broadening of context.
There is now much greater social consciousness among customers, within businesses, and across society. The context was once focused on narrowly improving corporate performance. No more. Now, a leader’s decision making must be built upon a much broader awareness.

3. Increasing emphasis on wisdom.
Data and knowledge have dominated for too long. Increasingly, the emphasis will be on making decisions using judgement and wisdom. Alessandro Di Fiore of ECSI Consulting talks of ‘insight-driven organizations’ where insights rather than data are the decision-making force. Roger Martin of the Rotman School argues along similar lines.
‘CEOs should indeed take into account all data that can be crunched. But in addition, CEOs should also use imagination, judgment, and experience of numerous data points from the past that the data analysts wouldn’t consider objective data to decide in what way to shape the future – like all the great CEOs in the history of business have done,’ says Martin. ‘CEOs need to stand strong and make decisions that can create a better future for their organization and for humanity.’

4: Expanding expectations of responsibility.
The notion of what leaders and companies are responsible for has also expanded. Protecting the environment, supporting the community, and improving the lives of workers aren’t merely good things that a company should do with some of its profits. They are the path to generating those profits. Not merely “a” path, but “the” path. Without embedding that awareness into everything a company does, everything it makes or sells or offers, problems will be created that will circle back and undermine any temporary successes.

5: Redefining notions of what success means.
There has been a huge amount of coverage of the measures of personal success utilized by millennials. They value social impact over material acquisition. But, what does this mean for organizations? How can leaders use this knowledge to improve corporate performance? Few large organizations or leaders have provided satisfactory answers to these questions. At Open Innovation Gateway (OIG), we always focus on “doing well by doing good” in everything we do as a part of our “WiseInnovation” practice.

6: The growing need for more humane decision making.
In a post-digital world, we need to move past binary thinking. As a simple example, even the distinction between analog and digital has become obsolete. Is Pokémon Go analog or digital? How about telesurgery? The questions are absurd. The answer to this and other attempts and binary categorization must be “both, and neither.”

Much deeper dichotomies need to be transcended for businesses, and for society, to thrive. The distinctions between company and non-company or charitable and profitable (among many others) are no longer valid. Answers to important questions will never be clear. But decisions can be humane. And they must.

This is the essence of the post-digital world: awareness of context, operating in a world without boundaries, answers that transcend dichotomies, and the need for humane decision making. Leaders must embrace the post-digital world, because it is here.

OIG's Perspective on the Transformation Journey

OIG's perspective of the transformation journey

Leadership Mindset for a Post-Digital World

Digital Mindset Post-Digital Mindset
We are the best We activate and enable an ecosystem
Do it ourselves Collaborate outside the four walls
Local optimization Global optimization
Either/or Both/and
Data Data in context
Process Purpose
Analyze and predict Search-Approve-Execute
Final answers Provisional answers
Product Services & Platform
Driving Change Catalyzing change
Best for the company Best for the world –which is best for the company
Knowledge Wisdom