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January 19, 2015
What is a digital sponsor to do?
By: Mark McDonald

Sponsorship is one of the paradoxes of digital transformation. On one hand digital democratizes information, technology and solutions creating bottom up solutions. On the other, those solutions require strong sponsorship to overcome internal inertia. So what is it to be, bottom up or top down. It is a question that can easily lead a sponsor to think of themselves as a type of digital hamlet – to be or not to be digital. The response, of course, is both.

The bottom/top and up/down nature of a digital sponsor makes this role different than other ‘sponsors’ of technology intensive change. It is not a point of confusion, so much as a pattern of social, technical and executive leadership. Let’s take these points in reverse order.

A good digital sponsor is an executive leader

Digital transformation requires a depth and breadth of coordination that cannot happen without strong executive leadership. In this capacity, the digital sponsor must work with and across peers in support of a collective response to digital challenges. For example, as an executive leader the sponsor facilitates resolving issues around information access, potential channel conflict, risk management and division of responsibilities.

Sponsors exercise executive leadership by getting the right people in the room. They achieve this through thinking through governance structures, peer participation, steering committees and working group. As an executive leader, the sponsor works to hand select people and participation in a digital project.

Digital projects offer isolated point solutions without effective enterprise leadership as bottom up business or functional unit go their own way. The result is duplicative, divisive and value draining subscale investments. When websites grow like bacteria, executive leadership is part of the solution.

Effective leadership does not require centralizing these point solutions, rather effective leaders recognize natural leverage points, identify successful solutions for scale and build the supporting management and executive capabilities required for digital success.

A good digital sponsor understands technology fundamentals.

A good digital sponsor recognizes that digital is more than a collection of social, mobile, analytics, cloud and other technologies. They also recognize that position of any one or more of these technologies may make the organization think it's digital without actually being digital. The difference between the two revolves around understanding the possibilities at the intersection of business and technology.

Digital technologies increase the information intensity and connectedness of every business resource. Digital transformation therefore involves exploiting combinations of these characteristics to customer and business advantage not simply acquiring and implementing new technology based on an old IT investment model.

Digital sponsors that understand technology value existing or legacy systems as they contain the information and core business rules required for success. Without this information, digital technologies are worth less as they lack a critical mass for scale and success. A digital sponsor views these systems as a resource rather than a restriction or limitation. Resources that help build a business/technology platform rather than yet another layer of restrictive infrastructure.

A good digital sponsor creates strong social systems and support.

The idea that digital is all about technology is far from true. Digital technologies are fundamentally human technologies. The human nature of digital makes the design and development of social systems as important as technical architectures and implementations.

People choose, write checks and change. A good social media sponsor keeps their focus on people. Sponsors recognize the importance of places where people congregate, communicate, complain, collaborate and they do not dismiss the potential of those places. Internally good digital sponsors look to create a social organization based on a clear strategy and set of purposes. Externally, they recognize the power of peer influence, listening and engaging people on their own terms.

Social systems extend beyond social media. The interplay between individuals, initiatives and investments create their own social systems. Good digital sponsors look to build awareness, understanding and excitement about the possible digital future through social means that facilitate contextualization and mutual support rather than corporate communications that imply command and conformity.

A good digital sponsor recognizes that every digital solution should raise human ability either the ability of customers or associate/employees or trading partners or the public at large. They keep that in mind and look for solutions that not only create customer utility, but also do it in a way that fosters empathy, confidence and advocacy. It is always about the people and good sponsors never lose site of that.

So what does a good digital sponsor do?

A good digital sponsor builds the organization’s capability and capacity to create value from new customer, business and technology combinations. They are builders who look beyond the immediate initiative, to plant the seeds for the internal relationships required to make tough decisions at speed and with certainty. Externally they recognize the outcomes that matter to the people that matter – customers.

Bringing it all together requires leading across different domains and in different ways. Uniting internal formal organization structures, understanding the fundamentals of technology and instantiating both in a flexible social system, these are the tasks of a good digital sponsor.

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