Digital Leadership and New Roles: System-Architects and Relationship-Champions

Monday, 03. December 2018

A guest article by Prof. Dr. Thorn Kring

Digitization drives companies into change processes: Business models are constantly changing, strategies get adapted, new digital solutions and new service offerings evolve. Project structures overrule functional organizational hierarchies and agile methodologies change the way we work together within our teams. Our employees fully experience the challenges of the digital working world. The ability to quickly adapt to the highly dynamic and changing competitive environment turns out to become a core competence of successful companies. Leadership in such digital times needs to rethink its purpose and focus.

Leadership in an Era of Digital Transformation

Manager webTwo aspects of Digital Leadership – in terms of the development and relationship function of leaders and managers within the digital transformation – are in focus: The first aspect moves the manager away from the top of the hierarchy into the core of a dynamic organizational network. This move changes their role from a “Decision-Bottleneck“ to a “System-Architect”. Fostering autonomy within defined corner stones for orientation becomes a key leadership principle within dynamic working environments. The second aspect concentrates on the need of direct and “close” relationship work. Digital leaders have to fine-tune their antennas to realize potential resistance of employees within the digital transformation process early enough in order to be able to react quickly.

Digital Leaders are System-Architects

Leadership within a digital transformation demands a high working effort “ON the system”. Leaders have to reflect upon potential barriers of employees for not following or not actively contributing to the planned change process. If our historically grown and “comfortable” structures – with all the formerly valid success patterns to solve problems in our known world – are no longer proper solutions for the requirements that are given today, then we should question those patterns when it is about leading people. Or even better – we should eliminate them:

  • Decentralize decision power: Leadership should identify the “slowing down meachinsms” within our organization and within our decision processes that are hindering adaptability. Partizipation of our employees should be fostered and decentralized decision structures should be the prefferred way to go compared to centralized decisions.
  • Strenghten cross-functional collaboration: The ablity to adapt is not only a result of fast decisions. It is more about the quality and sustainability of those decisions. Diversity within our teams, constant dialogue and rotating respective sharing knowledge (eg in projects) boost the decision quality and contribute to a higher degree of adaptability. Interconnections win against the old „specialist silos“.
  • Dentify and support informal structures:  We tend to cut informal communication channels when focusing on efficiency or wrongly understood aim to control. Especially those informal structures are those that support internal changeability. Communities of Practice, initiated and driven by our own employees, are symptoms of such important structures.

Digital Leader as System-Architects bet on the motivating power of autonomy. If our people get space for self-determined activities, they will discover and leverage the engagement needed to master the digital transformation. Leading in this context means to actively create the prerequisites needed so that our people can act autonomously.

Digital Leaders are Relationship-Champions

networking webLeading in a digital transformation is not only about working on the system. Because our employees perceive digitization as an area of conflicts, facing it with fears and resistance, the direct, personal and close relationship to our people remains to be important. Employees should be exited about digitization and at the same time they fear that their jobs become replaced. They should be creative, innovative and focused at the same time as well as efficient within their routines. Our Bonus-Systems forced them to think and work in “When-Then”-Logics and undermined any intrinsic motives. The digital abilities and the perceived own competence of our people are at a very different stage. Anyone who does not feel comfortable and able to deal with it will not be motivated to support any digital change. 

Digital Leaders should realize those signals of resistance and be able to deal with them in a constructive way:

  • Live the Relations: At the point where digital work leads to anonymity, digital leaders should invest in personal dialogue. Empathy in leadership cannot be replaced by anything else!
  • Face the Paradox in a creative way: Digital leaders should identify the stress-field of digital transformation and they should accept this reality. They should be „gentle brave“ to go for experiments, to fail fast and to learn fast. They should stand up straight with own mistakes and prove their own ability to reflect and to learn in front of their people.
  • Inspire meaningful: Extrinsic bonus systems should be reduced to a minimum. They get replaced by commonly developed, purpose-driven and inspirational mechanisms that contribute to a higher purpose, based on tangible, credible offerings of the company to their customers.

Digital Leaders should respect their people with their individual characters. They should be able to establish individual learning spaces, where their people are able to learn to cope with digitization. The target position is a learning organization as a systems architecture, where autonomy, meaning and the individual development of each employee interact and fit together. By respecting this digital leadership we will gain a substantial contribution to a successful digital transformation.

About the Author


Thorn Kring webProf. Dr. Thorn Kring is leader of Institute for Ethics, Leadership and Human Resources Management at Steinbeis University Berlin. The institute’s key areas are ethics in business and leadership, employee management and human resources management. He is involved in several research projects in the context of digital transformation and its impact an leadership. His focus are companies as learning organizations, the analysis and design of learning processes on company and employee level.

As academic Leader of zeb Business School at Steinbeis University Berlin he and his team transfer their research results and leverage these insights to design modern digital learning architectures for their bachelor and master programs. As Senior Advisor Human Capital Management, Development and Corporate Learning at EVOLUTINOIZER GmbH he is engaged in issues concerning human resource management in times of digital transformation.