During this time of rapid adoption of technology, how can companies use digital tools to stay afloat and stay relevant? Scott Synder weighs in.

The outbreak of COVID-19 forced company leaders  to transform their operations and accommodate remote work  for their employees overnight. But many companies are not thinking big enough about how digital tools can help their business thrive.

Scott Snyder is a senior fellow at the Wharton School, an adjunct Penn Engineering professor, and a partner at the executive search firm of Heidrick & Struggles. Last month, he co-authored an op-ed on Knowledge@Wharton about how to be a digital leader during the COVID-19 crisis. He spoke to Wharton Business Daily host Dan Loney to expand upon some insights he shared.

Interview Highlights

1. Companies should think beyond just digitizing daily operations.

“It’ll be interesting because none of us have a great crystal ball right now, but the reality is that we could be stuck in a mode where whether by choice or out of fear and caution employees choose virtual work if they have that option for a long period of time. If that’s the case, you need to be set up as an organization not just to operate virtually, but to start to take advantage of all the other platforms out there, whether it’s digitizing your sales and marketing model, or digitizing how you operate. I think it’s going to really shine light across the organization, not just the typical places.”

2. Every member of senior leadership, not just the CIO, should be thinking about how best to use digital tools.

“The first thing (companies should do is recognize) that digital is not somebody else’s job. I think too often it’s easy to say, ‘We hired a chief digital officer,’ or, ‘It’s the CIO’s job to make us digital,’ and the reality is every leader, no matter what role you’re in, whether you’re the CFO, the CHRO, or you’re running the supply chain, has to be digitally aware in this current era to really help the company be successful. If you’re running HR and you’re not thinking about virtual recruiting and virtual interactions with your employee experience today, then you’re behind. If you’re in the chief legal officer role and you’re not thinking about how you can quickly use things like artificial intelligence to comb through documents faster and do knowledge management or IP protection better as a company, then you’re behind. Every role in the company is now requiring leaders (who) are digitally aware.”

3. Speed is more important than having the perfect plan.

“(Don’t wait) for perfection to act. Digital innovation, by its nature, is about learning and discovering and experimenting, and in some cases failing along the way. That’s not comfortable for a lot of companies, let alone leaders, but this idea of creating safe paths and areas of the company to experiment fast, learn, and then scale is really important. Then I think the last piece is really not just looking at efficiency gains in your company with digital, but also thinking about how you could innovate or rethink or reinvent parts of your business.”

4. Now is not the time to fall back into old habits.

“Leaders have their old habits, and sometimes (it takes a) shock to the system (to get them to embrace) new behavior. But inevitably, a certain crop of them will still fall back to their old habits. We can only hope that companies use this platform to not go backwards. Even if we go back to normal interactions as humans, which I certainly hope we do, I hope that we capture all the gains we’ve made in using technology and digital tools to augment our own effectiveness as leaders and as organizations.”

5. Company leaders should consider making remote work a permanent option for their employees after the outbreak subsides.

“A lot of companies have started out (with their companies working from home.) There are companies that were born virtual, like a Coursera. Their workforce is distributed all over the country and the world. So, in some ways they have no boundaries to where they source talent. They don’t need to be in Silicon Valley or Boston or a certain city in the world to be closest to the high-priced talent. But on the flip side, for a lot of organizations that are traditional, working from home is uncomfortable for liability and risk reasons, and it’s just not something they’re used to. I think all companies will have to get used to (this idea) and figure out the right balance of being in the office versus being productive in this hybrid model of being virtual and physical.”

6. Analytics is a key part of doing business in the digital age.

“People have a very narrow view of digital, especially in light of the crisis state. They kind of think it’s just about virtual work and connecting in through the web or mobile apps. Digital’s a much bigger canopy or umbrella of technologies. It includes things like analytics and artificial intelligence. It includes things like virtual and immersive experiences, or even sensors. I think you’ll start to see that (the more progressive companies) will take a much broader view of how they can educate all their employees and leaders on putting these things to work. For instance, if you’re in the finance department, there’s a huge opportunity to use data and automation to drive greater efficiencies, and frankly, reduce some of the low-value work and repurpose your employees to the high-value work that can be done. We’re seeing that being done across the board. Clearly, analytics and using your data as an asset or currency is a huge part of unlocking the value of digital.”

— Emily O’Donnell

Posted: April 20, 2020

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