In the digital age we are all ‘receptive researchers’

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Dr Catherine Howe 3rd October 2016 3 minute read

In the digital age we are all ‘receptive researchers’

It’s easy to think that for your business to be good at ‘digital’ all you need worry about is the technology. If your organisation believes that, it’s missing the point.

Digital in its widest sense involves radical systemic change that’s as much about culture and behaviours (social) as it is process design and infrastructure (technical). 21st century ‘leadership’, to unlock the full potential of digital transformation, is going to look very different as a result.

Having spent years watching technology and the impact it has on commerce and communities I know we are always in a state of change - and everything is always changing. But I think the pace and unexpected consequences of digital and networked technologies are something new and different. We are constantly trying to make sense of a fast changing context.


Leadership in a digital age 

Considering digital in terms of systems thinking is vital. How can leaders and businesses approach this? Well I’d argue that one of the great unsung skills of the 21st century is the ability to put together strong multidisciplinary teams by picking the right disciplines in the first place.

Digital transformation requires that technical disciplines come together and work dynamically and iteratively with other experts. To do this effectively we need to approach projects as researchers and:

  • understand the bias we (or others) have towards our own areas of expertise
  • try not to claim a project for one area or function
  • be aware of the language we use and that it can mean different things to different people in different circumstances. (‘Co-production’ for example.)


The skill of the open mind

The ability to appreciate and welcome different viewpoints and keep an open mind will be essential as will the skill to balance this openness with a vision and drive to keep a project moving forward.

The multidisciplinary working that true digital success calls for can be hard. Watch the frustration that can result as a service designer with an obsessive focus on the end user tries to unpick a back office process built through decades of professional expertise. And In the context of digital, really understanding what some of the newer disciplines such as service design or analytics can bring is also critical.

More broadly than that, innovative and creative solutions to complex problems will demand we provoke, question and explore ideas outside our own professional practice.


A headstart on team building

By this measure effective digital transformation is about systems leadership building multidisciplinary teams that mirror the system you are trying to influence. If you’re looking for a headstart on putting those teams together, that’s not a bad guiding principle to keep in mind. 



Dr Catherine Howe is an expert in how communities embrace digital innovation, collaboration and social media. She has more than 15 years experience working across the public and private sectors looking at how the Networked Society impacts the way we work and live. Since 2015 she has been a Capita Solutions Director.

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