The days of command-and-control, winner-take-all leadership are over

Jeroen van der Velden is an expert in organisational development and strategy. As an Associate Strategy Professor at Nyenrode Business University and the Co-Director of the Nyenrode Strategy Centre, he leads courses on digital transformation, strategy alignment, new business models and new ways of working. For more than 25 years, he has advised organisations across various sectors on strategic issues related to organisational development and teamwork. As a researcher, he focuses on strategy alignment and the effects of information technology in organisational environments. He is a core lecturer for the RightBrains Digital Leadership Programme.

How is rapid technological change demanding organisations to transform?

We live in a consumer-driven world. In the wake of digitalisation and the possibilities it brings, consumer demands are changing faster than ever. For example, consider the logistics industry. Several years ago, track-and-trace was a special service offered only by the top players. Today, consumers expect this service from any logistics company competing in the marketplace.

As digital technology transforms our world, organisations are forced to operate in the context of uncertainty. As organisations think ahead, they need to consider complex variables: How will technology evolve? How will regulatory issues between governments play out? How will consumer demands change? It is easy to look backwards and understand why events unfolded as they did, but it is impossible to predict a future event from the information we have now.

To be successful in this dynamic new environment, organisations need to become adaptable and at the same time more efficient. The traditional methods for managing teams and developing products and services are less effective. Whereas organisations have traditionally worked from a locus of control, they must now surrender their control and focus instead on becoming flexible and resilient to change.

New ways of working, such as scrum and agile, have emerged in response to these developments. These methods are characterised by short cycles and greater emphasis on the process rather than the end product. As organisations move to implement these new ways of working, however, they will need to fundamentally change. First, they have to let go of the out-dated traditional hierarchy. Second, they will need to embrace multidisciplinary collaboration. In this new environment, people will need to speak and understand more languages to add value. Third, employees will have less of a fixed role and instead function as members of a network in which they play changing roles over time according to the demands and requirements of the moment.

What kinds of adjustments will organisations need to make in light of these developments? What are some trends we can expect to see in this area over the next three to five years?

The challenges that arise within an organisational context are increasingly complex and need to be addressed as strategic issues. These challenges often have no single solution, but rather multiple solutions that appease different combinations of stakeholders. Whereas teams have traditionally worked towards convergent solutions, organisations have to move more and more towards pursuing divergent problem-solving by striving towards an optimum between different factors. Since an idea for a product or service will most likely change as it is developed, the starting point becomes much more important than the final product. This means that teams within organisations will need to innovate given only basic ideas and boundaries.

Within this context, the people who form an organisation are critical, as their histories and perspectives form the foundation for the organisation’s response to change. By collaborating, they develop the dynamic capabilities that enable the organisation to adapt, evolve and thereby remain competitive in the digital business environment.

What do you find most exciting about working in this area?

I’ve always been fond of science fiction films. Films like Minority Report, Ex Machina and The Matrix give us ideas about how the world will evolve – not necessarily what will happen, but what can happen.

In the very near future, we will see many of our current jobs outsourced to robots. Computers are not only able to solve structured and unstructured mental tasks; they are already able to learn. Furthermore, machines are in many cases already able to produce higher quality and more reliable work output. Consequently, many of the jobs that exist today will vanish. This means that how people add value within organisations is changing. The important question is how.

This is the starting point for why digitalisation changes everything. As we enter the unknown, we need to think critically about how we are going to fill in our future. How will we change and develop? Will there be work for everybody? What will happen if a few have everything and the rest have nothing? These technological advancements bring forward a multitude of such questions, and these questions are important because we as a society are responsible for steering technology in the right direction. The future has the potential to be a horror story or something beautiful, and it’s up to us.