Business School Alumni


Lessons for leadership: determining what the 'next business as usual' will look like

Lessons for leadership - determining what the ‘next business as usual’ will look likeCovid-19 has brought traditional leadership characteristics into stark contrast with those demanded now and for delivering on Industry 4.0, says Nottingham University Business School's Dr Terri Simpkin.

While human, social and economic consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic continue to unfold attention is turning to the mid to longer term.

Leaders now must determine what the ‘next business as usual’ will look like. However, many of the leadership challenges faced now were already on the agenda but advancing with a perceived lack of urgency. Covid-19 has accelerated matters that were once thought, perhaps erroneously, to have a much more distant time horizon. One of these is Industry 4.0.

The emergence of the pandemic has brought into startling focus some of the creeping spectres of disruption associated with the new industrial age. While leaders have been aware of the challenges (and in some sectors, the commonplace adoption) of technologies such as artificial intelligence, robotics and advances in global digital infrastructure, the international consequences of this shift have been spotlighted even more so in recent weeks and months.

In 2014, Brynjolfsson and McAfee suggested that amid the bounty delivered by digital technologies we could expect that: ‘Professions of all kinds – from lawyers to truck drivers – will be forever upended. Companies will be forced to transform or die.’ So too, in 2017 McKinsey said that “technologies also raise difficult questions about the broader impact of automation on jobs, skills wages, and the nature of work itself”.

But it is not all about the technology. The gig economy and the changing notion of what work is, who does it, where and how it is done, has been changing alongside emerging business models. Platform organisations, subscription models and ‘everything’ as a service (XaaS), for example, have challenged a prevailing leadership paradigm and while implications of these matters are seen on the horizon, they have actually been much more pressing than responses would have us believe.

The pandemic has delivered these challenges to our consciousness as if a parallel universe had suddenly replaced ‘business as usual’. Industry 4.0 is undoubtedly a challenge to leadership. However, in 2018, Deloitte indicated that advancing organisational challenges were seen ‘purely through today’s business lens’ and a follow-on piece released in January identified that two thirds of leaders knew their organisations had no formal strategy or were approaching Industry 4.0 challenges in an ad hoc manner.

So, what has this got to do with Covid-19?

Taking a helicopter view of recent events, volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity characterising the unabated march of Industry 4.0 has been amplified. The pace of organisational change taking advantage of bounties of Industry 4.0 has meant that traditional notions of decisiveness, steadfastness, surety and charisma need to give way to distributed leadership models, risk tolerance and an understanding that perhaps 40 years of past experience was not necessarily going to equip a leader with the contemporary capabilities to lead today.

Covid-19 has brought traditional leadership characteristics into stark contrast with those demanded now. Leaders who have acted with compassion, authenticity and ‘human-ness’ have fared better than those with a more command and control or laissez faire approach. 

New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern is the much identified ‘face’ of effective leadership, but what she is demonstrating is a well-known, yet perhaps little enacted, suite of capabilities. While she has employed leadership strategies to effectively react to this pandemic those same capabilities are needed for the mid to longer term challenges of Industry 4.0. She is decisive but open, uses data tempered with contextual sense-making, and balances empathy with the need to be directive. Her methods have created a respected decision-making ‘core’ with the capacity to flex as new information arrives.

The pandemic has also highlighted that charisma (once much lauded as a leadership ‘style’) should be secondary to leadership competence. Public health emergencies and chronic change agendas both require personal and strategic competence to develop resilience against volatility and a dearth of certainty.

Organisational resilience: it’s a people ‘thing’

While crisis response is often based on process, plans and structures, it is the human capacity to pivot that provides resilience as bureaucratic ‘rules of engagement’ are disrupted. In times like this, and as Industry 4.0 delivers global displacement of workers, emerging digital economies and disruptive business models, it is human creativity and ingenuity that will drive new ‘business as usual’ structures. 

For example, this pandemic has illustrated how quickly diverse interests can collaborate to develop new or augmented technologies to meet acute demand (think development of new ventilators, for example). In terms of leadership, this sort of collaboration requires not only the capacity to manage human and intellectual resources but a view beyond shareholder value, to stakeholder value too.

Industry 4.0, like the current pandemic, requires leaders to become concerned with a more expansive stakeholder view building on corporate social responsibility to generate a decisive social contract to operate. Public and policy tolerance for profiteering or unethical behaviour is limited. Remember the backlash against Mike Ashley for publicly suggesting Sports Direct was as essential as pharmacies and food retailers?

Inclusion-led response: amplifying the voices of others

While the business case for inclusive practices has been longstanding, wholesale success of equality, diversity and inclusion initiatives has been limited.

However, success will be afforded to those leaders who are able to leverage and amplify voices that may have been locked out of the Industry 4.0 agenda to date. Those needing different work practices and those who face barriers to inclusion, advancement and reward due to gender, disability, neurodiversity or social background can advance innovation in work practices, as consumers and as community stakeholders. 

Now that leaders may have a refreshed view of how work is done, where it is done and who has the opportunity to do it, they will be questioned if old biases find their way into a reimagined ‘business as usual’. After all, who would have thought we would have Parliament brought to us by Zoom and our kids and cats tolerated in online board meetings? Leaders who realise a profound shift in traditional barriers to inclusion will rebound from the consequences of the pandemic with better practices to meet the challenges of Industry 4.0 as well. 

From Covid-19 to Industry 4.0: a test of leadership

Notwithstanding the human health catastrophe, much of what has challenged our organisations during this global crisis has been on the Industry 4.0 agenda for some time. 

Redeployment of workers, leveraging technological advancements, the changing nature of work, equality of opportunity and inclusion and even the introduction of an income safety net for those displaced are part and parcel of the discussion of how the fourth industrial revolution will unfold. 

Leaders must employ contemporary leadership philosophies and capabilities to respond to Covid-19 and, in doing so, may develop invaluable insight to reimagine organisational landscapes for a next Industry 4.0 ‘business as usual’.

About Terri Simpkin

Dr Theresa Simpkin is an Associate Professor and the Director of the Senior Leadership Degree Apprenticeship at Nottingham University Business School.

In 2019 she was identified as one of the Power 50, the most influential women in the digital economy and she is currently working with key players in the digital infrastructure sector to respond to workforce capability challenges. Her work also extends to diversity and inclusion in STEM and she is currently researching the personal and workplace implications of the impostor phenomenon in women in STEM occupations.


This article first appeared on the Association of MBAs website

Posted on Thursday 28th May 2020




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