Digital Leadership or just leadership?

Ok – so back at the desk and trying to find my blogging rhythm post PHD submission. I need to get into some kind of discipline with this I think. So – to do that I can tell you that coming up are posts on the network of networks as we have got some RSA catalyst funding for that which I need to get moving on and also something on democratic/digital identity which feeds into another research project. Also have some book reviews to come from the “Box of Dangerous Ideas” – everything that should have been in the thesis if it had been published earlier. But enough warm up – here’s the post!

I have spoken at a lot of events recently and by accident or design I keep coming back to the theme of digital leadership skills and I wanted to unpack this a bit here. Part of my preoccupation with the topic is a personal need to reconnect with my own leadership practice – in the finish frenzy with the PHD I don’t think I have been as communicative or as open with my thinking as I could be with my own team (sorry folks – and thank you again) and I think focusing on it again makes me realise its importance. But enough about me….

But the main reason is a logical extension of the kind of conversation that I facilitated at Comms Camp which explored the real blocks in social media use within organisations – we need leaders who ‘get’ this stuff if we are going to move forward. It also links to the discussion at UKGovcamp about ‘what next’ which turned into a discussion about leadership.

I would also argue that we need to audit relevant skills throughout the whole organisation – but I have framed this post in terms of what resources leaders need access to to lead in a digital and networked context. Leadership is a topic which I think risks being more talked about that actually practiced and this is not intended as a wider debate of the literature around this. My own view is that we need to be developing relevant skills to lead through networked rather than hierarchal power and I’ve written about that elsewhere.

I have spent the last few years (at least at weekends!) immersed in ideas about Digital Civic Space – the online equivalent of our offline public realm. I’ve been thinking about the gap between the commercial spaces that ‘the market’ builds and the needs of civic and democratic society. Having emerged from this I am now looking for the people who are going to build it (this research is ALL about the action) and as I start to talk about these themes more widely I have started to come up against a skills gap. The first part of addressing this is in getting people to discuss that gap.

I use the term ‘Digital’ to refer to a set of behaviours as well as technologies and if this were a more academic article I would probably be talking about the shift to the network society and a participatory culture – both of which are enabled but not defined by the technology. However – in a less academic way this is about the ability of digital tools and behaviours to be a major driver of organisational and process change.

This is increasingly understood by Government (just look at what Carl Haggerty is cooking up in Devon) but this post is specifically aimed at people (elected or un-elected) in leadership positions. How many times have you heard someone senior claiming not to understand technology? The passive put down in terms of referring to twitter in terms of ‘twittering’? Or simply referring the whole digital ‘thing’ to someone else, more junior, in the organisation? My point, frequently stated to a sharp intake of breath, is that if you are not expecting to retire in the next 12 months then this kind of disconnection from such a significant subject area is not only poor judgement but also irresponsible. I believe that every senior team needs at least one person who understands the potential of digital networked technologies to transform their organisational model and practice and this person may or may not also be the person responsible for ICT.

This is a presentation I have been using recently (or variants of) to describe what I mean by digital civic space:

This presentation tends to trigger a variety of responses (including the need for a cup of tea and a lie down) but it does tend to connect the aspiration to create digital civic spaces with a discussion about the skills needed to do this.

The list below outlines some of the areas where I think we should be developing in future (and current leaders), based on the earlier definition of digital. Not all of these are needed directly – I am not an accountant but that doesn’t mean I can’t work fluently with my Financial Director. We need the skills to lead/manage these new areas of expertise not necessarily adopt them all ourselves.

  • An understanding of networked power: One of the defining features of a changing workplace, and society, is the erosion of hierarchical power. Understanding how networked power operates in your own environment will be essential
  • Collaboration skills: This is a natural corollary to networked power, while government has been taking about partnership and collaboration for a long time it has been against a backdrop of hierarchical power. Real collaboration requires a different set of skills.
  • Co-design skills: In the networked councillor work (and other places) I have talked about the need for a more co-productive relationship with the public but to realise this we need to see more co-design skills, applied internally and externally, within organisations.
  • Social media ‘social’ skills: This is not a matter of telling everyone to start tweeting but instead an acknowledgment of the fact that the way in which we create and consume information has changed and leaders need to have a contemporary view of what this change means.
  • An adequate understanding of the basic lexicon of digital: Somewhere in your head is a fuzzy picture of how the Internet works, or your own organisational network, or the cloud, how accurate is that mental model? You will inevitably be managing people with this kind of lexicon and you may be spending millions of pounds of this technology.  In the same way I need to be able to talk balance sheets with my FD, leaders will need to be able to relate to discussions about technology.
  • Horizon scanning and research: The wonder, and concern, of technology is its rate of change. Who is horizon scanning for you not in terms of what’s shiny but in terms of what’s useful? Don’t you need domain specialists who are able to do this?
  • Data skills: Data is the byproduct of digitisation as well as the main ‘fuel’ for our online lives. Open data is a central part of any agenda of open government and something which is an established element of any discussion of ‘future government’. Organisations should benefit from the data that they are creating and in the case of open data be exploring ways in which local data could not only inform better decision making but also be driving local economic growth. Data and data sharing is also an important underpinning to any form of organisational collaboration. Do you have someone in your organisation who is thinking about how your data can work more effectively to meet your strategic objectives?
  • Digital commissioning: Government has been very poor at procuring ICT solutions – we have to get better at this. Enough said.
  • Agile project management: I have written about this elsewhere – but the ability to plan and manage projects in a more agile way is important both in terms of technological ‘fit’ but also with respect to working within complex and chaotic environments.

Many of these may, in the future, be embedded within the standard skill-set of different professions in the way that communications specialists are considering how to integrate social media into their practice. One question to ask of all of the professions is how they are managing their own skills renewal as this is not a technologists manifesto – organisational leadership may come from a variety of professional backgrounds but my point is that that team, however its made up will need access to these skills.

There is of course a link to the work on the Networked Councillor here as in a democratic leadership is also needed – but until our town planners are thinking about the augmented reality embedded in the high street and the senior team is able to reference technologies which barely exist today and might be transformative in 2 years time then there is a lot of work still to do.

As ever – comments and challenge are very welcome.






  1. johnpopham

    June 2, 2013 at 12:12 pm

    Excellent post Catherine. I think you have hit one of the key nails on the head, and that is how people who do “get” digital develop the arguments, the confidence, and the skills to challenge those at the top who dismiss it. I am fed up of meeting sparky, switched-on (too many electronics references?) people who know what their organisations need to do to change, but who are frustrated by those who make policy, and hold the purse strings, from implementing any of their ideas.

    • curiouscatherine

      June 2, 2013 at 5:58 pm

      Thanks John! I share your frustration with their frustration! But I also worry when we go too far the other way and don’t take enough heed of non-digital but essential professional knowledge when implementing some of this stuff – we have to find a way to really co-create and I think this means this upskilling of leaders.

  2. Jonathan Flowers (@jonathanflowers)

    June 2, 2013 at 1:12 pm

    Very thought provoking.

    If someone is exerting leadership co-productively in a networked, non-hierarchical organisation, how can you tell?

    This is a slightly tongue-in-cheek question with a serious point – we need to acknowledge that this sort of leadership looks and feels _incredibly_ different to the more conventional kind, and it may not be obvious to the casual observer that it is (a) taking place (b) worth paying for.

    I completely agree that we need to crack this, though. Take the comment as a discussion about an implementation issue not a challenge to the concept!

    As to John’s comment, is there anything we can learn from how previous waves of change have established a hold at the top of organisations, from a grass-roots base? Someone must have studied the impact of personal computers in this way, for example?

    • curiouscatherine

      June 2, 2013 at 5:57 pm

      As ever a good point…however tongue in cheek. Have been thinking about creating some more concrete examples around this stuff so will do that. In terms of the measurement though – have been considering this recently and I think it might something around reach and influence – which in SNA terms is measurable – will be developing this in the networks of networks stuff.

      Also agree with John – looking at how this works in a grassroots context would be really helpful – though I think you need to take note of the differences in the environments to get the most out of the comparison.

  3. simonjchughes

    June 2, 2013 at 3:34 pm

    Great post applicable for all organisations. Your first bullet is an interesting one for local government. In some senses Councillors are there because of their networked power – or at least the power of those that support them. In the work we do in my organisation on Cllrs use of social media we introduce this early on as one of the concepts. I’ve yet to meet one who doesn’t get it. Its what they do. However, translate this into the organisation and its another issue completely for some of the officers that are leaders.

    I cant disagree with your analysis and the challenge is enabling people and organisations to do things differently. I blogged on some of the issues after the topic came up at a #btncc - I haven’t come up with a clear answer yet but then i’ve still got to read through those 3,345 articles on change management.

    • curiouscatherine

      June 2, 2013 at 5:54 pm

      Thanks Simon – I liked your post of doing things differently. It made me think about that fact that one of the things that doesn’t get talked about is the need for organisational and personal confidence around change – giving this to your organisation in times of rapid change might be the most critical leadership skill of all and I think this is one of the reasons why I put the emphasis on data and horizon scanning – you have to be aware of the current reality as well as what might be coming in order to communicate confidence about change in a chaotic context – you can’t just look internally.

  4. Claire

    June 2, 2013 at 4:36 pm

    An excellent and timely post on something I’ve also been thinking about a lot. I think we have to embed digital leadership within our many organisation, but also to use the assets in the communities we serve, and digital has a big part to play in this, too. Hmm, i need to blog about this and i’ll link to this as my jumping off point. Thank you.

    • curiouscatherine

      June 2, 2013 at 5:51 pm

      you are welcome! look forward to reading the blog post as there is a lots more thinking to do done around this stuff

  5. tomsprints

    June 2, 2013 at 4:42 pm

    Hi Catherine.

    Spot on comments. However, I’d go even further than you in some respects. Even if you ARE planning to retire in the next twelve months, these are vital skills to start accumulating:

    a) because they will become life skills after you’ve left;
    b) because you can’t expect to hand over your role to a successor without offering some form of vision for the future based around the possibilities that digital should or will open up; and
    c) because without those skills, you’ll be dead weight in the organisation long before that twelve months is up.

    For those who plan to remain, has anyone yet produced a set of basic but realistic “digital literacy” competencies for leaders? I am sure someone will have thought about this. Your bullet points above probably capture the headings, but these need fleshing out into the language of expectations. The lead on this is never going to come from leaders themselves, in my view. Far too easy for them to say things like “I got where I am without knowing any of that new guff.” Think back to the times when we called it “computer literacy”. If there were competencies then, they tended to be shallow things like “must have a good awareness of the opportunities that spreadsheets, word-processing and databases will have for the function of the unit” (that’s a quote from a set of competencies for a job I took on as recently as 2003). Nowadays, just having “a good awareness” of social media, data sharing etc is never going to be enough. A leader needs to have and be maintaining a social media profile, needs to know the effects and consequences from data sharing, and so on.

    Purely technical skills will continue to exist, and there’s a need to avoid frightening the horses by expecting every leader can code, as just one example, but I do think that in some ways the necessary digital skills bar has been raised in recent years and will continue to rise. While it’s probably still legitimate for a leader to say “Ah, but I employ experts to do this, that or the other for me”, I’d say that every leader now needs to understand the basic constructs of a web site, understand at least in essence what a simple boolean search looks like, etc.

    I also think that very much the same holds true for elected councillors in local government. It is no longer enough that you just bring to the table your elected majority and some vague concept of a mandate or commitment to public service derived from a cautiously worded manifesto. As people accountable to people, elected representatives need modern relationships with people, built using modern relationship-building tools. Sadly, as I’ve said before, in other contexts, political parties and political administrations need to look at how they function in some of these respects. Being “off message” is something many rank and file politicians will fear, because it usually brings with it opprobrium or worse from the Party Whips etc. But can an individual politician build a realistic social media profile (say) and be constantly “on message” without sounding forced, facile or fatuous?

    Maybe the biggest future leadership skill that the digital world with spotlight is that of “letting go” some or all of the control-freak tendencies too many leaders still retain?


    • curiouscatherine

      June 2, 2013 at 5:50 pm

      Thanks Tom – I think you are quite right when you make the link to councillors – have been doing the same with the networked councillor stuff buzzing round my brain in parallel. Also agree that we should consider these to be life skills rather than strictly leadership but I like your phrase of digital literacy here!

    • watfordgap

      June 2, 2013 at 10:44 pm

      Thinking as sector boundaries become increasingly blurry, leadership may come in from other places, indeed are we all leaders to some extent in our local community networks?

      There is currently a piece of work around this being undertaken as part of the Skills and Leadership Review in the Voluntary Sector. The section on Digital Fluency – is relevant with some good recommendations (and very alarming statistics) about the lack of digital understanding in organisations.

      I tweeted this earlier, the point on the ‘Digital Lexicon’ really stands out. Leaders should be getting their heads round this stuff, but also are we each doing enough to convince them (in the right language) the importance of Digital Leadership? Leaders need to at least understand the lexicon of technology so they can ask the right questions, make the right decisions and not be hoodwinked by some of the sales types out there.

      Also Open Data. We are all producing this stuff, organisations are producing it by the shedload, but where does most of it end up? Locked away. If leaders could see its value and could see the value of collaborating with others and sharing data we’d be making progress. (Also if someone could come up with a way to make data easy to work with for smaller communities please).

      Sadly none of this is news. 10 years ago we were saying the same about basic desktop PC technology in organisations ….

  6. Irene Mackintosh

    June 2, 2013 at 10:40 pm

    The concept of a digital civic space is definitely part of what’s needed to ensure those in positions of political power have a real understanding of the needs and aspirations of those they seek to represent. Sadly, the majority of folk in these positions are slow to engage- especially, perhaps, in our neck of the woods.

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  8. vicky sargent (@vickysargent)

    June 3, 2013 at 6:02 am

    Excellent post covering lots of ground!
    You mention digital leadership and capacity and ask who is thinking about this. Socitm has been doing a certain amount as part of developing its strategy frameworks for ICT (Planting the Flag) and digital (Digital Insights). The material can be found at, where comments are welcome. We are embarking on further research now, please get in touch if interested.
    On a more personal note, your comments re senior people claiming they have no knowledge of technology really hit a note with me. Recently I was interviewing a very senior person with an important local government organisation and I asked whether they thought digital offered solutions to the current supply/demand crisis. ‘Oh its not good asking me about digital!’ they quipped – obviously rather pleased with their answer. Its this sort of thing that has to change. There really isn’t time to just wait for these people to retire.

  9. robwebster1

    June 3, 2013 at 7:59 am

    Thanks – I will be shariong with the team here for a discussion on our approach

  10. Stefan

    June 3, 2013 at 10:24 am

    Very thought provoking, so a couple of random responses:

    The twelve months from retirement point reminded me of this passage from Bill Gates’ “Business at the Speed of Thought – published in 1999, but the story is set “in the late 1980s”:

    When the new systems were finally coming online, Ralph [Larsen, CEO of Johnson and Johnson] ran into an executive and asked him, “Did you get my note?” The executive said no. Ralph said, “I sent you an e-mail.” The executive said, “Well, I don’t use a computer.” Ralph said, “Then you’ll never hear from me again, because that’s the only way I am going to communicate to senior management in written form.” Next day, the executive had a computer on his desk.

    That’s not a subtle message (and it’s not a subtle book), but it does prompt the question of what the equivalent conversations might be today. And of course the people contemplating retirement now were a lot younger then.

    The title of your post poses a very good question, but doesn’t directly answer it (though I thnk I could make a stab about what your answer would be). As long as there is something called digital leadership, there will be digital leaders who will be different from (though may overlap with) unqualified (in both senses) leaders. Your list strongly, and I think rightly, implies that those skills may be a consequence of the world having become digital, but they are not specific to some specialist set of leaders.In a post a couple of weeks ago (still waiting for your promised reaction ;-)), I said that “Digital engagement is not a digital problem, it is an engagement problem.” I think that statement stands just as strongly substituting “leadership” for “engagement”.

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  12. Phil Jewitt

    June 4, 2013 at 6:05 am

    Thanks for this Catherine. Great post and much food for thought. I recently read a similarly good post by @tribaling on a linked subject. So I’ve done some combined thinking and provide more debate/response here

    Please keep doing what you do.

  13. alexstobart (@alexstobart)

    June 4, 2013 at 6:21 am

    Hello Catherine

    I came to this post from Carl’s blog

    Some years ago in 1990 there was a great deal made of Emotional Intelligence and EQ perhaps replacing IQ ( Daniel Goleman ). Emotional literacy was cited as being very important when succeeding in business, life etc.

    Perhaps we need someone to write about DQ and digital literacy / intelligence to inject these fresh ideas into a wider public consciousness.

    I am not sure if we admire or value digital leaders enough ; we may be struck by their wealth and / or power but the titans of digital may not yet be seen a contributing to society at large. Personally, I think that many do, but how many digital leaders would make the ” Top 10 world impact makers ” of 1988 – 2013 in a poll.

    In local government, there are c. 450 organisations in the UK. Will the better-at-digital ones go out of business quicker than the I-don’t-understand-digital ones ?

    As we start to see local government entities running out of money, and facing insolvency, might they wonder what could have happened if they had shown digital leadership, and re-positioned their systems and business models ?

    In many other sectors of the economy, digital is recognised as offering competitive advantage – cost, convenience and quality. I think these apply to all sectors.

    On locking up data, organisations such as the Sunlight Foundation, and Open Knowledge Foundation are making determined steps to open up public sector data. For smaller communities wishing to use data, again there are efforts by digitally-skilled sections of civic society, and some list servers such as eCampaigning forum that seek to promote answers.


  14. Dave Mckenna (@Localopolis)

    June 4, 2013 at 4:20 pm

    Very interesting stuff! I like the whole digital civic space thing and (like others) aim to blog on some aspects of it.

    The thing that really struck me though was the idea of digital being behaviour as well as tech – this seems a really neat way of approaching digital issues – particularly given the reluctance of some to engage with the tech. I wonder if we should go a step further and just say that digital is a set of behaviours (and that the tech just supports them)? And whether ‘digital’ then becomes the wrong word although I am not sure what the right word is…

  15. Steve Halliday @stevehalliday0

    June 5, 2013 at 10:52 pm

    “Networked power” is a useful concept, Catherine, I like how you have developed it. To exist in society, one needs to be reasonably literate, numerate and my new favourite term “digicate”.

    Leaders need to access digicate skills, if leadership means listening to what’s going on around you, and shaping what’s going around you, within and beyond your organisation. Not just horizon scanning, but horizon tweaking!

    Like you say, in the digital world, we do our thinking in public. So here’s a half formed thought that I’d value your views (and your readers views) on:

    Just like in the analogue world, different people network differently. Just like they have different numeracy or literacy skills and aptitudes, they will have different digicate characteristics. Some, irrespecive of age and experience will not be digital naturals. This does not make them bad persons, or even bad leaders. I have seen some wonderful leaders who, with a very small but precisely chosen and honed network of trusted people, deliver some inspirational leadership. And some absolute time wasters who seem to know everything about everyone.

    So don’t be too harsh on the conservatively digicate. You will find them amongst “old” leaders and amongst youths who are turning away from social media (my kids classes are full of ’em). The rich tapestry of a good team will require differently literate, numerate and digicate people. Some emotionally intelligent leaders will simply know how to gather the digicate around them – and some will be the digital ambassadors themselves.

    I’d love to run a Myers Briggs type indicator analysis on the Digital frontier pushing crowd. ( My hypothesis is that we’d find we have an abundance of Extrovert-Sensing-Feeling-Judging, or a close variant of that in our ranks. Which doesn’t make us best, or right.

    What do you think?

  16. Michael

    June 6, 2013 at 2:30 pm

    The blog of a towering intellect, I’d say. Welcome back, post PhD. Thought provoking and useful in equal measure, as ever.

    I really like the ‘digital competencies’ (or whatever) and would just add a point about understanding what residents are already doing in this space.

    Picking up Jonathan’s point about embedded and ‘hidden’ digitial leadership within organisations, civic leaders need to be aware that this is happening in their communities. Self-organising, digitally native, co-producing, networked groups of people are already leading. Ironically, the challenge for local leaders, is not always just to be following.

    While not wishing to generalise (as at the very least a tech-savvy Mother-in-Law who was given an iPad by her self-organising, digitally native, co-producing, networked grandchildren for her 80th birthday, forbids me), I suspect that in many Councils, this is in part a generational thing, with older (not ‘old’, note) political and managerial leaders being less exposed and therefore aware of the issues you raise and arguments that you make.

    We are making efforts to address this. One admittedly small, but important example being the proposed daily loan of iPads to delegates at the LGA Conference (thanks to Jonathan!).


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