Don’t look for digital experts, look for expert generalists

Digitalisation affects every organisation, like it or not. Adaptation and transformation is essential. But how? By bringing in a ”digital” person with experience from one of the big tech companies? Probably not. To find the right person, you will need to look outside their CV.

In 2016, Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau visited the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. A press conference was held, where a journalist asked a question and casually insinuated that he didn’t expect the prime minister to be able to explain quantum computing. Then, this happened: 

To the audience’s delighted surprise, the prime minister effortlessly explained quantum computing versus traditional computing. It went viral. 

In this scenario, not only did Mr. Trudeau prove himself to be knowledgeable in quantum computing. He also proved himself to be an expert generalist. Which is precisely the type of people needed to transform organisations on the top most level. 

Digital experts …

Companies looking to digitalise their business quite often try to take a shortcut by hiring a “digital executive.” This competence is often identified in individuals’ CV’s by positions in a digital company, such as Alphabet, Facebook or Apple. However, this is not necessarily a solution.

This usually leads to a dead end, where the “digital” person is creating and recommending solutions that are eventually killed off, because they are not integrated into the corporate strategy. Projects around trendy topics such as analytics, big data and blockchain are obviously natural topics for tech giants, but not necessarily for other companies. 

However, if your input is based on these technological topics alone, you are very quickly dismissed as a contributor to the “digital strategy” rather than “corporate strategy.” Most companies have a hard time consolidating their digital strategy with their corporate strategy. A truly great leader will understand the business and is able to apply a wider variety of knowledge to develop the business.

… vs expert generalists

The term expert generalist is attributed to Orbit Gadiesh, who defined it as ”someone who has the ability and curiosity to master and collect expertise in many different disciplines, industries, skills, topics, capabilities etc”. In other words, an expert generalist is someone who doesn’t have a PhD level of understanding of everything, but who knows a lot about many topics. True leaders who understand a big variety of topics and themes, and who know how to apply that kind of knowledge. Jiji Majiri Ugboma writes about the topic in a manner that I feel catches the point excellently.

Being versed in a wide variety of topics should be the main focus for boards and management teams, and expert generalists should be the target to develop and recruit into the top management. 

A holistic approach to digitalisation

The challenge with finding the right persons for leading positions is that expert generalism is a quality that is very hard to quantify, which means that people don’t know yet how to describe it in their CV, or look for it. That’s where the expertise of a board recruitment and executive search consultancy comes in.

When we interview candidates, we ask them about their experience starting from corporate strategy and slowly move towards topics they are familiar with. We call this the philosophy of true digitalisation – how does it allow us as individuals to work better, what are the big topics that can be transformed, etc.

The candidates that usually talk about digitalisation on a technical level or about using it as an efficiency tool are usually the ones who start up projects around technologies, projects where technology is the driver rather than the need to solve a problem. The right candidates, on the other hand, talk about need based development on a very holistic level.

Chief Electricity Officer

As an analogy, consider this: In the change of the 19th and 20th centuries, organisations may have had a Chief Electricity Officer, whose role was to make sure that the recently introduced commodity called electricity was properly utilised.

The less successful manufacturing companies changed their big steam engine in the center of their factories to an electric engine and utilised the existing pulley and gear system to transport energy to the drills and lathes. Whereas the more forward looking companies removed the large engine altogether and added smaller electric motors to the tools, thus eliminating the complex maintenance of the system.

The initial lure of the electric motor was the energy savings compared to coal, but the success came from the indirect savings (as excellently described by Warren Devine Jr. in “From Shafts to Wires” 1983, The journal of Economic History). 

These days there aren’t many Chief Electricity Officers left on the boards or management teams – we expect everyone to know what electricity is and how to use it in their respective fields and include it in the corporate strategy. 

The same should go for digitalisation. For transformation, don’t look for digital board members. Look for board members that make your business digital. 

Consultant