Call it the dark side of the always-on digital world: the incessant pressure business leaders face—from investors, customers, employees—to be present and accountable, more often than not via social media.1
Most executives sense (correctly) that it’s only going to get worse in a world where everyone has the potential to connect with everyone else... and where everyone has the ability to check the veracity of what a leader says. That may explain why the vast majority of CEOs remain on the social media sidelines, viewing these technologies as unwelcome, even frivolous intrusions on their already limited time.2 But it is easy to imagine a not-too-distant future where being able to answer difficult questions quickly and accurately could mean the difference between winning and losing.
So, can leaders be connected, present and effective 24/7? And should they be? The answer to both questions is yes. But this will require leaders to embrace social media, not for its own sake but as a deliberate and targeted way to enhance connectivity and cohesiveness within their organizations. They will need to exploit the very technologies that created this expectation of instant accessibility in the first place. And by becoming thoughtful, sophisticated users of social media, they will be able to have a presence even when they are absent.
Accenture interviews with executives who are actively implementing digital strategy in their organizations suggest that tomorrow’s business leaders will have to do three things well. (See Sidebar “About the Research”).
The good news is that analytics are catching up to the data tsunami, making the time leaders spend analyzing information more productive. For example, Twitter, Google News, Facebook’s Graph Search and LinkedIn’s Pulse capture and announce events ahead of major print and digital media by continuously monitoring the Internet for trending topics in real time. Similar analytical tools will soon make it possible for leaders to tune in to internal organizational conversations, even on a global scale.
For example, Microsoft IT leaders keep their fingers on the pulse of the organization by using analytical software to monitor hot and trending topics in their Yammer collaboration space. This allows CEO Satya Nadella to pick up on early warning signals.3 Sentiments like thumbs up/down, likes, emoticons and expressions of excitement can be aggregated to give an early indication of how an idea is being received.
Organizational conversations occur at different speeds, as well as in different media. Some unwind quickly, like the rapid-fire exchange of texts or instant messages, while others play out over longer stretches. Tuning in to these global conversations requires tools that capture and analyze multiple streams of data, tools that previously were available only to intelligence agencies.
For example, Oblong Industries’ Mezzanine system captures the multiple streams of data that are routinely generated in meetings-including telepresence and virtual meetings—and organizes them into files that can be edited and streamed for later use. Soon, organizational conversations—posts, comments, rejoinders and all the evidence that underlies them—will be accessible to leaders in a quick, digestible form.4
Rather than passively monitor the intranet, leaders will be able to do what they do best: insert questions that stimulate or redirect the conversation.5Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff actively participates in a variety of internal conversation threads with the explicit intent of stirring the pot as well as keeping current on the ways programmers and customers test the limits of the company’s collaboration products. Former Tupperware North America President Stein Ove Fenne transformed communications from a one-way headquarters broadcast to a two-way dialogue with sales associates, available 24/7.6
Further improvements in language processing tools will sharpen an organization’s ability to detect energy and emotion in digital communication. With the visual equivalent of a thermograph to depict organizational hot spots and cold spots, leaders will be in a much better position to identify where ideas are being born or, worse, dying.
The key here is that leaders need not be social media masters. Instead, like great orchestra conductors, they will listen ahead to the players around them, anticipating and thus shaping the way conversations move next.
Leaders need to establish a presence that accurately and consistently represents who they are and what they stand for, even when they are absent. And, especially when they reside some distance from the people who report to them, leaders want to influence how people do important things, like formulate strategy, make decisions and deal with ambiguity. When done well, shorter and more frequent real-time communications (like video events and blog posts) can sustain a leader’s influence in between time-intensive face-to-face encounters.
However, achieving a digital presence requires leaders to think differently about how organizations operate. For example, it is common knowledge that many opinion shapers and influencers don’t register on the formal org chart. Yet when researchers conduct social network analyses it turns out that managers cannot name even half of the people others turn to for information and advice in their departments.7 This suggests that such ignorance may carry a cost in terms of ability to communicate (one way or two ways) through organizational networks.
Just as they need to know who has influence in an organizational network, leaders should be alert to the blind spots that may exist in their own personal networks. High-performing professionals tend to maintain a fairly even distribution of peers, superiors and subordinates in their personal networks, both within and outside their employing organization.
Their “spherical” networks bring support and resources from superiors, advice and criticism from peers, and feedback and engagement from subordinates.
Unfortunately, many leaders maintain networks that are not suited to achieving presence. For example, a study undertaken in a multinational pharmaceutical company revealed that the networks of its US subsidiary were skewed to people from similar disciplinary or functional backgrounds, hierarchical levels, or cultural and gender groups. Rather than bringing the broadest array of information—including bad or controversial news—leaders’ networks insulated and even diminished their presence.
Awareness of network structure can make it possible to capture the multiplier effect that networks offer. Having an accurate understanding of central connectors and “brokers” (people who reside at the intersection of multiple subnetworks) will make it possible for a leader to address more people faster than he or she could with a top-down memo or a companywide email blast.
Moreover, a leader can forge connections faster and more simply by having greater visibility into the overall network.
For example, if he or she is aware that two different parts of an organization are pursuing the same objective but are unaware of each other’s efforts, he or she can connect the dots and, in the process, reshape the network. In addition, with growing concerns about cost and energy conservation, it will prove more efficient for leaders to monitor a dozen subnetworks in two hours than to try to visit a dozen in a month. The implications for achieving presence are clear: When leaders are aware of the con-versations that are taking place in their organizations and can identify those that are generating the most energy or emotion, they can allocate their attention (and their interventions) with greater impact.
This report is part of an ongoing project being carried out by Accenture’s Institute for High Performance on the broad topic of “Leading the Digital Enterprise,” or LDE. Drawing from Accenture’s 2014 Tech Vision, the 2014 CEO Briefing, and an earlier AIHP report (“From Looking Digital to Being Digital”), LDE explores the implications of digital technologies for the work of leaders and managers.
The research team, led by Bob Thomas and supported by Richard Amico, conducted in-depth interviews with more than two dozen executives from 17 companies tasked with implementing digital strategy. Included in this sample were companies from the financial services, consumer goods, energy, automotive and professional services industries. In addition, the team received helpful feedback and advice from leading academics at MIT, Stanford University, the Indian School of Business, INSEAD, and the Harvard Business School.
As a showcase for the most innovative thinking on high-performance business, Outlook focuses on six core themes: Redefining Competitiveness, Digital Disruption, Global Operating Model, Open Innovation, Sustainability and Workforce of the Future. We feature original content devoted to these topics as well as a selection of unique insights offered by professionals throughout Accenture.
Robert J. Thomas
is Managing Director of Research at the Accenture Institute for High Performance, based in Boston. He is also a Managing Director in Accenture Strategy Talent and Organization.