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Sunil Mithas: Building digital IQ

LiveMint logoLiveMint 12-03-2017 Pooja Singh

Information technology (IT) plays an integral role in the growth of a company, big or small. It is also essential for a manager to hone his digital intelligence to reach the next level in his career. “It is perhaps not an overstatement to say that digital intelligence is becoming a critical skill for anyone aspiring to become a senior leader or a CEO (chief executive officer),” writes Sunil Mithas in his latest book, Digital Intelligence: What Every Smart Manager Must Have For Success In An Information Age. His previous book was Making The Elephant Dance: The Tata Way To Innovate, Transform And Globalize.

In an email interview, Mithas, a professor at the University of Maryland’s Robert H Smith School of Business in the US, explains how entrepreneurs, executives and managers can shape their understanding and actions related to digital intelligence. Edited excerpts:

Digital Intelligence— What Every Smart Manager Must Have For Success In An Information Age: By Sunil Mithas, Portfolio, Penguin Random House India, 320 pages, Rs599.

What are the ingredients of digital intelligence?

Digital intelligence, the ability to understand and make use of the power of IT to one’s advantage, is becoming a critical skill for survival and success in today’s economy. Digital intelligence is more than being able to work with computers or IT; it also involves expert thinking and complex communication skills.

Digital intelligence rests on three pillars: It implies a basic understanding of (1) how a firm should synchronize its business strategy with its IT strategy; (2) how the firm should govern IT; and (3) how the firm should manage IT infrastructure and implement IT projects.

How important is digital intelligence for organizations to thrive?

From a strategic perspective, IT can create and sustain competitive advantage if managed well. While there are some examples of leaders and managers having been able to use IT as a lever to transform their organizations for competitive success, many more have failed to successfully manage IT. All conscientious managers, particularly those who are or aspire to be leaders, have a duty to manage resources, including IT resources, in their organizations in a responsible manner. Regardless of their current functional affiliation or career goals, their future success will critically depend on how they lead and manage IT-enabled strategic changes. A digital divide arising from differential access to technology may be easier to address; but a digital divide resulting from variance in digital intelligence is more tacit and intangible and harder to tackle.

Could you suggest some ways in which an executive can sharpen his/her digital IQ?

Like other competencies such as leadership and emotional intelligence, digital intelligence or digital IQ is not something that a person is born with. Thankfully, it can be acquired through education and appropriate experiences. Managers must find and create educational opportunities to learn about the management of digital resources and to engage with IT projects in their organizations for themselves, for their direct reports, for their counterparts and other stakeholders to ensure success.

Senior executives and IT professionals have a responsibility to ensure that all IT and strategic decisions in their firms are approached by individuals who have the requisite digital intelligence and who are exposed to the three pillars of digital business strategy. Doing so will require investing in the education of key professionals, followed by continuous dialogue between business and IT personnel. Only then will digital business strategies successfully lead to business value and contribute to the organization’s success in the marketplace.

Technology is improving constantly. Is there a way for executives and companies to keep track?

Managers should be alert to emerging technologies, particularly “competence destroying” technologies or innovations. They should avoid traps such as delayed participation and sticking with the familiar, a reluctance to fully commit, and lack of persistence when dealing with newer technologies.

Some of the key prescriptions are to stay curious and keep abreast of new technologies, calibrate your response to them carefully, launching pilot projects or “dabbling” in new technologies to reduce technical uncertainties, and pay attention to timing, because it is sometimes possible for a technology to be ahead of the market. In such cases, “waiting” may be appropriate till necessary complements or “killer apps” emerge.

In the end, it may be worth remembering that technologies themselves rarely change or transform anything, it is thoughtful leadership and managerial actions that drive positive change. It may need some “craziness” and determination. Apple’s Think Different commercial in 1997 is a particularly apt reminder: “The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.”

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