Digital Leadership: Opportunities for Cities, States, and Regions

Summary: What does it mean for a city (or state or region) to be a digital leader? This post provides ideas to stimulate thinking and discussion by promoting a focus that is broader than the technologies themselves, specific applications like consumer marketing, high-tech start-ups, and the digital sector. Advocating a more strategic and holistic approach, it introduces other ways in which digital leadership can and will manifest itself in the decades to come, and invites others to share their thoughts (as well as examples) on how to turn possibilities into realities. (from the Denovati SMART Blog)

Recently my adopted home, Chicago, was written up in The Economist as a great place for digital start-ups. Although Chicago is the third-largest metropolitan area in the United States, I must confess I read the article with a curious sense of “small-town” pride and “aw shucks” humility. Politicians notwithstanding, that’s generally how folks roll here in the Midwest.

The article seemed to capture the technology-focused culture pretty well, though I think the larger digital transformation opportunities and challenges are bigger than they present. Interestingly, I wrote a “call to arms” blog post along these lines almost three years ago. In it I offered ideas for how cities, states, and regions can demonstrate digital leadership beyond trying to become a “silicon center.” This seems as good a time as any to update and reshare it. As with my original piece, I’d like to stimulate thinking and discussion. I’m particularly interested in identifying examples of my ideas in practice, and am especially keen on learning about communities that are already taking a more strategic and holistic approach to defining digital leadership.

Digital Leadership: The New York City Example

I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the work New York has done to become “the world’s leading Digital City.” You can learn about their efforts, begun in 2011, here. Their accomplishments over the past few years are impressive, and their ambitions and progress continue unabated. But as broad as their scope is (addressing access to technology, open government, citizen engagement, industry – and later, (higher) education), it’s still not as broad as it could be. Specifically, there’s a heavy emphasis on technological infrastructure, as well as on enhancing the ways in which the city engages with its inhabitants and promotes open government. And with respect to industry, it appears the focus is primarily on the digital sector. Though all those things are important for digital leadership, the reach and potential impact of new technologies on people, organizations, society and the economy are much greater than that.

Digital Leadership: Thinking Bigger

As the Founder of The Denovati Group (and its predecessors, the Social Media in Organizations (SMinOrgs) Community and the Global Center for Digital Era Leadership), I have dedicated myself to exploring and helping people understand the individual, organizational, social and economic applications and implications of social media and other digital technologies (including social software, mobile technology, big data and analytics, and cloud computing). The Denovati Group’s focus extends beyond the business-to-consumer orientation that dominates most discussions of social and digital technologies, and includes organizations of all types in all sectors.

Effective digital leadership requires individuals and organizations to respond effectively to the opportunities and challenges evolving digital technologies present. Practitioners in all functional areas need to provide necessary leadership and support for organizational initiatives, as well as prepare themselves for how digital technologies will impact their careers.

In addition to marketing/branding, sales, public relations and customer service, we focus on intra-organizational implications of social and digital technologies, particularly in terms of how they impact employees and organizational functioning. Emphasizing the intersection of people and technology, we explore areas like the following through a Digital Era lens: communication and collaboration, human capital and talent management, leadership, organizational development and change management, knowledge management and business intelligence, legal issues, training and development.

Although it may see like an unnecessary semantic distinction, our focus may be better described as Digital Era leadership rather than digital leadership. To us it’s not just about establishing leadership with respect to digital technologies, it’s about demonstrating the necessary knowledge and skills to lead in the Digital Era, regardless of your professional responsibilities and/or organizational focus.

Digital Leadership: An Open Letter to Chicago
(Or Your City, State, Region)

Below is an edited version of a letter to the editor I sent to Crain’s Chicago Business in the spring of 2011. Although a few things have changed since my call to action, the general ideas are still on point.

A version of this opinion piece could probably be written for almost any metropolitan or regional area. Though areas differ in terms of their size and access to resources, and the specific ways in which digital leadership might manifest itself vary based on a region’s history, economy, academic institutions, citizenry, etc., those factors can be viewed as parameters within which to work and opportunities to capitalize on rather than immutable obstacles that can’t be overcome. The traditional barriers to success (e.g., access to capital and other resources) are in many respects a lot lower in the Digital Era than they’ve ever been. We are more restricted by the limitations imposed by lack of vision, inspiration, leadership, strategic focus, and discipline than we are by a lack of finances, technology, or human capital.

Chicago’s commitment to supporting homegrown technology start-ups is admirable, and it’s been encouraging to read recent news about the increased activity of venture capitalists, incubator programs, entrepreneurs, and others in support of local web-tech firms.

It’s important to remember, however, that there are many other ways in which Chicago can demonstrate digital leadership. Rather than trying to replicate Silicon Valley’s model [or NYC’s, or Boston’s, or Austin’s…], perhaps we would be better served by forging a path that builds on our unique history, capitalizes on our economic and cultural strengths, and emphasizes our academic community and traditional Chicago enterprises.

One way in which we can do that is to employ best practices in leveraging digital technologies to communicate with customers and other stakeholders. This effort has already begun, but there is more we can do to demonstrate leadership in various industries, especially those strongly associated with Chicago like consumer products, healthcare, museums, and financial services.

We can also demonstrate leadership with respect to new legal challenges related to intellectual property, commercial activity, employment practices, e-discovery, and social issues like privacy. Similarly, we can offer expert guidance in addressing the new human capital management challenges organizations are now facing.

We can provide examples for how traditional enterprises like media companies and manufacturers can develop new business models and find new ways to be competitive in response to economic threats and changing global realities resulting from new technologies. Chamber groups and various economic development entities can offer resources and guidance to help both new and established businesses better integrate digital technologies into their strategies and plans. Foundations can provide similar services for non-profit organizations.

Our academic community can become a hub for training Digital Era leaders and providing expertise by conducting research that addresses new realties and challenges. And with the mayor’s commitment to open government, Chicago could become a model of Government 2.0.

We should create a coalition to ensure an integrated approach to establishing our city’s digital leadership. Perhaps the city’s economic development office could establish a digital leadership initiative. Or we could create a Council for Digital Era Leadership, similar to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs or the Chicago Council on Science and Technology.

Pursuing a Digital Era leadership agenda would provide a great economic boost to the area, in addition to enabling us to create a best-practices model for other communities. To my knowledge, no other community has thought about Digital Era leadership in broader terms. Why not us?

Last fall Chicago produced a comprehensive technology plan that is similar to what NYC introduced in 2011, but also includes other technologies like biotech and adds a STEM focus (the naming differences between the two initiatives are somewhat amusing, and illustrative of the underlying cultural differences between the two cities… but I digress). I can’t take issue with any of the 28 initiatives they outlined, but I would suggest that rather than aspiring to “become the city fueled by technology,” a more appropriate long-term ambition might be to “develop a digitally transformed social and economic community.”

The Economist seems to share my perspective, at least in part, writing:

Chicago’s reputation for being technologically conservative might be the flip side of having a large and diverse economy, with traditional industries such as manufacturing, retail, finance and agriculture. These are conservative businesses by heart, but all need to incorporate digital technologies.

Just as with the American West, explorers and pathfinders are critical to making discoveries, determining what’s possible, and blazing trails. As motivating as “gold rush” opportunities may be to some, however, converting cyberspace from a frontier to a civilization requires pioneers and settlers – the people who leave the comforts of “back East” to tame the wildness of the new world. In addition to establishing law and order, creating infrastructure, etc., these are the people who adapt traditional systems, enterprises, and other organizations to their new environments, and help individuals adjust to the “new normal.” Just as Chicago was a gateway back in the middle of the 19th century, connecting the old and new, and an Industrial Era hub, it can become a true Digital Era leader as well. Rather than viewing its conservative culture and innate pragmatism as a potential hindrance to progress, it can be leveraged as an asset and a foundation for new growth.

Digital Leadership: Your Thoughts?

This is how I view things. How about you? Do you share my vision? Can you provide examples of that vision in action? What ideas do you have for moving forward? What leadership role do you plan to assume to help your city/state/region capitalize on the opportunities new digital technologies present?

As always, I welcome your feedback and input.

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