Think digital first – leadership in 2021 and beyond

11 November 2021 | Anand Agarwal

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Anand Agarwal

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After the recent taste of how a digital world works, Anand Agarwal, group CEO of STL, sets out six steps that digital leaders can take to get the most from the opportunity

It’s 2021. Yes, the world has gone digital. Almost. But has leadership transformed? Not yet.

Last year, a microscopic virus brought about the most macro global change I have witnessed in my life. In a matter of weeks, all organisations went digital. They had to. Becoming digital was no longer a fad, or a futuristic thing. It was a matter of life or death.

And as the old saying goes, “adversity creates opportunity”. And it did. However, as leaders, did we fully seize the opportunity? I would say there is still some distance for us to cover.

How did we fare as leaders? Across the world, leaders, especially those in global technology, took the decision to prioritise well-being and health, as workplaces went remote overnight. New systems and processes were slapped together in a matter of days. Bedrooms became boardrooms. Commute became a click on the zoom-link. Distances shrunk and timelines overlapped. Mostly, wherever it was possible, knowledge work continued to proceed, and even prosper. It has been a very healthy scorecard for how leaders did and how organisations coped.

Yet, all of the past year was merely a reaction. Not a considered effort. I believe that the real benefit of a digital world is still ahead of us. And the new ‘digital leader’ will need to take these six steps to make the most of this opportunity. We, as a company, have felt this reality palpably and have been gearing our capabilities towards taking the wonders of technology to millions across the globe.

Connect everyone 100%

Connecting wherever it’s viable is not enough. Humanity should avail itself of the benefits of digital networks and, no matter how complex, this is a problem worth solving. As a part of our business, we are taking broadband connectivity to the rural hinterlands of India. We are fervently working towards democratising Open RAN to get high-end 5G connectivity to all parts of the world. As we deliver these networks, we are thinking beyond just connectivity and have set up digital access points that help villagers utilise the benefits of telemedicine, e-commerce, distance education and e-governance for the first time. These digital kiosks combine connectivity, use cases and the human element – a first step towards bringing everyone together in one big human network.

Enable digital for everything

Mandated by the pandemic, education, healthcare and work has moved online, but technology companies need to punch above their (current) weight and digitalise more business processes, crafting digital experiences that cut through all aspects of life. These experiences will be built upon fundamentally different digital networks – networks that combine the power of wired and wireless, connectivity and compute; networks that are open and disaggregated and rest closer to the users. We have been building this new architecture and using these networks to enable use cases such as Industry 4.0 in our own mega-scale manufacturing units and enabling industrial IoT through private enterprise networks.
Invest in AI and robotics

As processes become digital, everything becomes data. Those processes that are physical can also be advanced through the use of focused robotics. In all these modernised processes, we need to leverage AI and data science to the fullest to speed up physical operations and make them responsive, intelligent and disruption-proof.

Invest in digital efficiency tools

All these elements of digital-first leadership will be built through collaborations between individuals and businesses across the world. This surely demands a digital-first way of working and collaboration. The current work from home arrangement was a reactive measure. We need to completely re-architect the digital working experience – make home offices and remote workstations super-effective, improve the online ideas-creation experience and mix it well with the human element.

Focus on human relations

Even though work can get done ‘digitally’, people need the softer touch. CEOs and leaders need to ensure soft-connect and office events continue. A flower bouquet on a work anniversary is now more important than ever. A phone call is way better than an impersonal email. Nothing beats a handwritten note. This non-digital part of digital-first leadership is the most crucial.

Find the right balance of returns and investment

This model has much to offer, and business leaders have multiple avenues to drive efficiencies. Think about reducing physical expenditure on offices, accessing the best talent from across the world, running digital training and employee well-being programmes effectively. But we have to get the right balance – the middle path between digital and physical. This equilibrium is yet to be found and makes the cut for the next big leadership challenge.

As we move along this six-step path to digital-first leadership, we need to constantly look through the lens of future readiness and human impact. For us, it means building open and agile networks that enable these transformative use cases on the edge, so that every network that is built creates a far-reaching impact on people’s lives.