Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Anatomy of an e-Leader

e-Leadership is of crucial importance for companies in all industries to excel in their business operation

Published: Jun 24, 2015 07:56:07 AM IST
Updated: Jun 24, 2015 08:41:12 AM IST
Anatomy of an e-Leader
(Left)Álvaro Arenas, Information Systems Area Chair, and Professor of Information Systems at IE Business School and José Esteves, Professor of Information Systems

We live in a hyper-connected era, with an increased reliance on digital information and extensive use of the Internet for a steadily rising number of activities.  Yet, our understanding of the Internet’s impact on business and the subsequent required digital transformation has not kept pace. Today, there is a vital need to promote greater leadership in information and communication technology (ICT) related innovation and productivity in order to deliver stronger business value and benefits.

e-Leadership is of crucial importance for companies in all industries to excel in their business operation. Recent research and studies confirm that the shortage of e-leadership skills across Europe is significant. The European Commission indicates that demand for digitally skilled employees is growing by around 4% a year and that shortages of ICT professionals in the EU could reach 825,000 unfilled vacancies by 2020.

As part of the service contract “LEAD - e-Leadership Skills: for Small and Medium Sized Enterprises’, funded by the European Commission, several European business schools, universities, and companies are defining targeted actions to promote e-leadership across Europe and study how e-leaders have emerged in business.  

Defining e-Leadership
E-leadership is defined as the accomplishment of a goal that relies on ICT through the direction of human resources and uses of ICT. It is a type of leadership, distinguished by the goals that need to be accomplished and what resources a leader must coordinate and align in order to do so. In the case of e-leadership, both the goal and the resources involve using ICT. An e-leader must be both business and ICT-savvy.

Previous studies have found that effective organisations are demanding e-leaders with a T-shaped portfolio of skills, representing expertise in both using ICT and developing organisations. Having a T-shaped portfolio of skills means that a leader has on one hand, a vertical set of skills that represent expertise or “deep knowledge” in a specific area (e.g., ICT; science; engineering; social sciences etc.); on the other hand, a horizontal set of skills that represent “transversal skills” (e.g., negotiation; critical thinking; design and systems thinking, business and entrepreneurship, etc.) that enable collaboration across a variety of boundaries; both vertical and horizontal sets of skills require at least an advanced level of ICT user skills.

The Profile of an e-Leader
Within the LEAD initiative, 42 high-growth small and medium sized companies across four European countries –Bulgaria, Denmark, Spain and United Kingdom– were analysed in order to determine how e-leaders have emerged in these companies, and how the companies meet their needs for new e-leaders.

Three characteristics appeared in the results typifying e-leaders:

  1. First, innovation is central in e-leaders’ organisations, and the e-leaders are the force driving innovation. Most innovations were rooted in technology and included innovation in both product development and business models.
  2. Second, e-leaders exploit digital trends. The so-called SMAC (Social, Mobility, Analytics and Cloud) technologies were exploited by a large number of companies. For instance, Cloud-based solutions for both operational efficiency and rapid time-to-market of their products were present in all countries.
  3. Third, e-leaders envision and drive change for business performance. In our study, e-leaders came from several professional areas, they were leading inter-disciplinary staff and steering projects with a strong impact for their organisation.

Developing e-Leaders
Our study found that closing the e-leadership skills gap requires a range of educational ecosystem actions. In particular, it needs strong collaboration of demand and supply stakeholders to create new educational offers. Learning needs were identified in some technical areas such as big data and business analytics, but a there is strong need to develop transversal skills such as negotiation and team leadership.

In relation to the channel used to gain e-leadership skills, some e-leaders acquired professional knowledge from traditional sources such as educational institutions like universities and business schools. E-leaders, and in particular those in SMEs, are moving toward the so-called pull-learning strategy, defining themselves the kind of professional knowledge they would like to acquire and getting it via new channels such as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), blended education, and short courses.

Finally, in our study a new emergent educational discussion emerged: the debate between formal and informal learning.  With the availability and knowledge sharing in this new digital society and the need to continuously update our knowledge, it seems that the best learning strategy is to combine both learning systems.

[This research paper has been reproduced with permission of the authors, professors of IE Business School, Spain]

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