Digital Thursday: How do we embed a paradigm shift in leadership towards transformational digital leaders?

On the 20th of February, Newcastle University Business School hosted the first Digital Thursday event, which will be conducted on the third Thursday of each month. The purpose of Digital Thursday is to bring together different perspectives on various topics in the digital technology sector. The event aims to facilitate the sharing of knowledge and give access to new networks and opportunities to partners across the North East and beyond in the format of round-table discussions.

The lead discussants in the February Digital Thursday event were Prof Savvas Papagiannidis from Newcastle University Business School, Steve Cammish from VP Edge Solutions for AI & IoT at ADLINK Technology, Alistair McLeod, Director at Gray Fox Consulting and David Morton, Interim CTO at ITSW. The discussants provided four insights into the paradigm shift towards transformational digital leadership from the perspectives of industry-academia engagement, a value-driven technology, digital leadership and change management.

Prof Savvas Papagiannidis started the event by discussing the importance of cooperation between industry and universities for bringing complementary perspectives, knowledge, skills and interests into the best practice. He started by presenting the potential impact that academia may have for facilitating digital growth through teaching, research and projects, primarily by providing consultancy to business sector actors. After a brief explanation of the six dimensions of transformational leadership, Prof Papagiannidis touched on a number of factors that hinder collaboration and the commitment of academics to engaging with businesses and vice versa. He then offered examples of how these obstacles may be overcome by outlining how different engagement modes could potentially be approached differently in order to maximise their outputs.

The second discussant, Steve Cammish, provided insight into how AI-based technology drives value for the company. Steve introduced the profile of the ADLINK Company and stakeholders they have had relationships with. He shared experience of being engaged in a project on IoT implementation in manufacturing. In the manufacturing industry, in most of the cases, companies do not have a digital transformation strategy. The role of a leader in such companies is to understand where value lies and reconsider their human resources when a skill gap exists. According to Mr Cammish, an actual value comes from AI, which makes it possible to close that gap. As an example, Steve talked about a successful business case when AI-based technologies provided a manufacturing company with a zero-waste logistics solution. AI and machine vision enabled the automation of manufacturing processes and warehouse distribution through Edge IoT technology by automotive palletizing, parts picking, distribution and the inspection of supplies. IoT delivered business outcomes and ROI through optimising operations, quality and risk improvement, predictive analytics, a new business model and services.

The third discussant, Alistair McLeod, emphasised the importance of building the digital capabilities needed to grow and exploit new business channels. The focus of the presentation was on digital DNA, its compounds, illustrated by examples of good and bad leaders setting a course through digital transformation. According to Mr McLeod, the main element of digital DNA is leadership, innovation, customers and capabilities. The role of leadership is critical in successfully leading a company in the digital age, by bringing clarity of strategy and by being willing to learn and adapt to changes. Any digital transformation needs investments in emerging technology. The services that innovation provides should be trusted and professional, revolving around customer needs. Alistair McLeod went on to portray the main characteristics of a good leader, which are ethics, risk-taking, decisiveness, the capability to empower employees, trustworthiness, an awareness of emerging technology and a willingness to embrace it. The areas that a good leader needs to focus on, such as mission, customers’ needs, values and culture, were also discussed. To illustrate examples of good and bad leaders, Alistair McLeod gave some business cases and described potential scenarios when digital leadership fails. The highlight being that leadership, technological innovation, customers and collaborations are the business fundamentals in the digital transformation processes.

The fourth discussant, David Morton, talked through the role of the chief technology officer in navigating companies through digital transformation. David Morton’s approach to carrying out the CTO role is to start from analysing why there are challenges with digital-enabled transformation in a company. According to David, it is important to understand the structures in the organisation and how they are dealing with the issues, the strategy of the organisation, what ethics they have, and how organisations look at things. Also, it is important to look at the top management of the company and the power dynamic and understand whether the CEO is a driving force or vice versa. Also, there is a need to focus on the HR side to grasp how they manage all transformational processes in the organisation and understand whether an existing workforce structure, intellectual assets and human resources are aligned with organisational goals. Another sphere of particular interest is the IT capabilities and the evaluation of the degree to which the IT staff is capable of implementing the changes required at the transformational stage. Having sensed the existing capabilities of the company and the causes of the struggles with digital transformation, the second stage is to embark on imagining how to make transformation happen. The talk concluded with questions, which gave food for thought and the transition to the concluding part of the event.

In conclusion, among various thought-provoking perspectives, there were several key points that emerged during the round table discussion;

First, the relevance of skills and knowledge is the fundamental aspect of digital growth. Therefore, a continuous learning process and agility are needed to help go through the change management process. Since people are the enablers of digital transformation, they need to be engaged in a continuous self-improvement cycle.

Second, collaboration is the leverage making knowledge and skills relevant. Collaboration between universities and business sectors can close the education-practice gap.

Third, technology develops at a pace industry is not capable of keeping up with. There are certain regulatory and ethical issues that slow down the process of emerging technology use in organisations. A huge ethical question is how the government will make it possible to develop the IoT ecosystem.

Fourth, digital transformation is about changing culture. However, this should not be at the expense of the existing company values.

Hence, the fifth point is that it is important not to change a business model for the sake of changing it.

If you’d like more information and/or contact any of the discussants, please submit your details and request via and we’ll be happy to facilitate.