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Digital Innovation

Realising digital ambition through talent and culture

7/2/2019 Scott Snyder and Christopher Uhrinek
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This article first appeared in the Q3 2019 issue of the SID Directors Bulletin published by the Singapore Institute of Directors.

Most companies understand the value a digital transformation can generate, but many struggle to capture its value. A recent Heidrick & Struggles survey of companies in the Asia-Pacific (APAC) region revealed that only 35 per cent are satisfied with the results of their current digital efforts.

The three biggest obstacles identified are lack of articulation of a digital strategy (39 per cent), lack of necessary talent (33 per cent), and moving too slowly (33 per cent).

The good news is that there is a significant appetite among APAC governments to help businesses go digital and future-proof their economies. For example, Singapore’s Government Technology Agency had indicated that S$2.8 billion of government infocomm technology contracts would be given out between April 2018 through to March 2019, a shade more than the previous year’s S$2.4 billion.

APAC companies, for their part, should focus not exclusively on technology but also on articulating a strategy, developing the workforce, and establishing a culture that accelerates progress.

A successful digital transformation takes a company from a traditional approach to customer experiences and operations to one where digital is used to innovate new approaches to existing tasks and processes, and to incubate new offerings and business models.

Moving target

The destination is inevitably a moving target, since new technologies are always emerging. By striving for digital acceleration, which can be defined as the ability to successfully develop and scale new digital initiatives across the business, companies can build the capabilities and infrastructure that will allow them to smoothly manage both current transformation projects and test future innovations in parallel.

Digitally accelerating organisations should take a few clear steps to achieve a well-defined and understood strategy for harnessing digital capabilities.

First, leaders should clarify their digital ambition. They can assess the future of their market by asking some basic questions—for example, what opportunities will exist to deliver step-change outcomes like a 10X improvement in customer value, what skills and capabilities they will need, and what the skills gap is likely to be. The answers will help them better articulate their digital ambition, the way it leverages their existing assets, and how to close the gaps.

Then leaders can begin to build the internal infrastructure to support that ambition by asking themselves: What will the journey look like, and how can processes be reworked to help along the way?

Lastly, to ensure they stay on track, organisations can measure their progress along the five stages of digital maturity and focus on developing their leadership, workforce, and culture to advance. (See box on “Measuring Digital Acceleration.”)

Realising digital ambition through talent and culture

Investing in talent, skills, and capabilities

More often than not, talent is the limiting factor when pursuing digital acceleration. Only 23 per cent of APAC companies surveyed consider their digital talent strategy to be ideal, and 57 per cent believe they need a new or different talent base. The best approach starts at the top and reaches across the entire workforce.

While 33 per cent of companies say they create strategic roles such as a chief innovation officer or chief analytics officer to spur progress in their digital efforts, this move alone is not sufficient.

Though not all leaders need to be technical experts, every executive should be an effective driver of digital change. Indeed, the entire senior management should evolve their digital capabilities to match their company’s evolution (see box, “Shaping Clear C-suite Roles for Digital Acceleration”).

Realising digital ambition through talent and culture

Transforming the workforce

Companies must also raise the digital dexterity of the entire workforce to truly build a long-term advantage. Organisations can support their employees in a number of ways:

  • Bring on external hires, partners, and freelancers who can fill current digital capability.
  • Balance institutional knowledge with new hires’ perspectives, and factor in the increased impact of automation on the workforce.
  • Look beyond acquiring designers, developers, and data scientists to anticipate critical emerging roles – for example, incubation managers or behavioural scientists.

Developing a supportive culture

Two aspects of culture are particularly important to digital acceleration.

First, companies should support and reward two types of innovation. “Big I” innovation is disruptive, looks to the future, and can fundamentally change the way a business operates. “Little i” innovation continually improves the core business.

Second, companies should also create a culture of continuous learning, in which people are encouraged to build new digital capabilities. When training is combined with support, communication, and knowledge sharing, the result is a workforce with the tools to innovate and solve problems more creatively.

Many enterprises have advantages they can use to protect and expand market share. In particular, APAC companies report a higher-than-global adoption of disruptive technologies such as the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, and conversational interfaces. This makes APAC an ideal test lab for new digital innovations that may be ahead of other regions.

But tech adoption alone will not create sufficient digital acceleration to win. The most successful APAC companies will build the capabilities to ensure they have the right talent at the right time as well as a culture that supports continuous learning and breakthrough innovation.


About the authors

Scott Snyder (ssnyder@heidrick.com) is the leader of Heidrick Consulting’s digital offering and a partner in the Philadelphia office. He is a senior fellow at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and the coauthor of Goliath’s Revenge.

Christopher Uhrinek (cuhrinek@heidrick.com) is a principal in the Singapore office and a member of Heidrick Consulting.


Scott Snyder Partner +1 215 988 1000
Christopher Uhrinek Principal +65 63325001

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