The Executive Response to Digital: Innovators, Delegators, and Underestimators

Lisa Welchman DG Blog

An abstract illustration showing binary code, traveling toward a light, as if into infinity.

Binary Code

The first “Web” development project I managed was in 1996. It was an intranet for a long-ago acquired networking hardware company in Silicon Valley. The project was to put the entire ISO 9001 approval process online. The company was small, just over 20 people and the project was driven by one of the executives. There were no questions asked about whether this was a proper use of an intranet. At the time I didn’t realize how unusual it was going to be for executives to have vision and drive the porting of various business processes to the intranet channel.

Of course it helps that this was a small, new company. It’s easier to invent a new process online than it is to migrate an existing process. And, it’s easier to conduct a change management process over a small staff that a global organization with tens of thousands of employees. But still, as I survey the digital landscape over 20 years later, I’m noticing that organizational leaders have had varied responses to the rise and push digital. I categorize these responses into three types of executives: Innovators; Delegators, Under-estimators. Depending on the type of leadership you have in your executive suite, you may find it frustrating when trying to implement substantive cross-organizational projects. Below are some characteristics of these different intranet and web leadership styles:

Realists & Innovators
Innovators understood years ago that the Internet and Web had the capacity to fuel disruption in their markets. So, they strove to re-engineer the business to be prepared to meet the “new normal” or, in some cases, to define that new normal. These executives led their organizations to digital success by creating and supporting an environment where eligible business processes could be transferred to the online channel. That support meant providing the digital team with funding, authority and strategic guidance.

Today, innovators have the basics of digital in-hand. These leaders ensure that their organizations maintain an effective and user-centered online experience for customers and lead the pack by advancing business practices in their market sector. They do this by disrupting their own business models to meet shifting customer demands—either through acquisition or innovation. In this way, innovators ensure that their organizations are sustainable over the long term.

Delegators
Delegators tip their cap to digital—sometimes in a big way when it comes to providing funding for marketing and IT centered activities—but they delegate digital strategy to lower-level managers, largely asking these managers to graft digital capabilities onto a largely unchanged organizational strategy and management tactics.

Underestimators
Underestimators continue to view digital primarily as a function of marketing (with some help from IT). The underestimator turns a blind eye to potential digitally-fueled market disruption and often complains about funding to get the digital teamed properly staffed and organized. This organization is likely on the back foot when it comes to digital and will likely be scrambling if and when they are forced to react to changes in business that are fueled by new online technology.

What type of leadership does your organization have? When thinking about your own digital efforts, it’s important to understand what type of executive you are dealing with—particularly if you are looking for substantive change or a large fiscal investment. Innovators need little guidance but delegators and underestimators likely need a sound business case that’s presented professionally and with non-technical language. Make sure you approach them not with complaints about lack of funding and technical buzz words but with a business case full of real metrics and a clearly articulated return on investment.