6 Characteristics of Digital Leadership

man and woman talkign together while using computer

Written by Ceri Gorton, Co-Director at Bird & Gorton

Before we talk about digital leadership or transformation, let’s consider what we mean by digital.

We often think about digital in terms of social media, websites, apps and digital marketing. It’s no wonder we start here. These are the platforms and tools that engage audiences and funders with what we do and who we are as artists, organisations, and leaders.

Another starting point is thinking about digital in terms of innovation, of cutting-edge technologies that can transform the art we make and how it is shared. It is hardly surprising that cultural leaders are fascinated by the potential of the latest technology to imagine new opportunities for art and heritage experiences. Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR), and Mixed Reality (MR), for example, offer a toolbox rich in creative possibilities.

Digital is this, but not only this. Limiting ourselves to thinking about digital in terms of platforms or innovation alone holds back our organisations, our audiences, and our creative practice.

The new reality of digital, described so well by Julie Dodd, is the result of a scale of change “in how people choose to communicate, watch TV, learn, bank, shop and organise their lives” that has been likened to the industrial revolution.

The definition I’ve found most helpful in recognising this new reality for leaders and organisations is that offered by Tom Loosemore, who defines digital as “Applying the culture, practices, processes & technologies of the Internet-era to respond to people’s raised expectations.”

Digital leadership & transformation

With the changes that people are making in how they communicate and organise their lives, leaders and organisations in the cultural sector need to keep adapting to be effective in the Internet-era.

So, what does digital leadership look like? What skills and approaches are needed?

The great people at Dot Everyone, with their mission of making the UK’s leaders digitally literate, suggest that “being a leader in the digital age means understanding technology as much as you understand money, HR, or the law.” If leaders have digital understanding, they can then make ”confident, informed and effective decisions for their organisation and their users”.

Skills development is a continuous process for leaders. We can all develop our digital understanding through learning about digital trends and tools, and practicing the skills that enable us to lead well. When it comes to digital, this doesn’t mean that we all need to be technologists and coders. What we do need is enough digital understanding to recognise our skills gaps and identify who we can work with so that our projects and organisations can thrive.

Skilled digital leadership is needed to transform our organisations to be fit for the Internet-era, through a process of building new capacities, structures and ways of working.

Where to start? Being curious about our users and audiences, and open to learning what can be done differently to serve them better, has huge potential to benefit cultural organisations. Agile and Design Thinking approaches to organisational and programme development informed by user needs are being explored by cultural organisations across the country. Understanding what our users need and how our work could meet these needs can make what we do more appealing, relevant, fundable accessible, and cheaper to develop and deliver.

By learning from data and insights about our users and their needs, we can transform cultural leadership and cultural organisations to thrive in the Internet-era, and move away from limiting ourselves to thinking about digital in terms of platforms or innovation alone.

Six Characteristics of Digital Leadership

  1. Recognising that digital is not always about scale of flashy projects, it’s about transforming people and ways of working
  2. Developing digital skills across the organisation, not just within a separate department
  3. Instead of a digital strategy, integrating digital processes and technologies to serve and shape business and artistic strategies
  4. Providing leaders with a mandate and budget to test and embed digital technology and agile ways of working
  5. Starting all programmes and projects with use research and user needs, iterating what you do and how you do it in response to feedback
  6. Inspiring teams and boards about the benefits of digital transformation with tangible proof of concept, even if the successful experiments are small in scale.

Useful resources and further reading

This article was originally published here and was reposted with permission.

Dr Ceri Gorton also conducted research with AHRC exploring what qualities of leadership are needed to ensure the resilience of cultural organisations in the digital age. They produced a report ‘Building Digital Leadership and Resilience in the UK’s Cultural Sector.’



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