Thinking Ahead: Preparing Next-Generation Leaders

By Faisal Hoque  |  Posted 2008-07-22

Economies ebb and flow, and weather systems, like marketplaces, are always chaotic. However, if we stay fixated on them, we can forget that the ship needs a good captain and good officers, in fair weather or foul–particularly in foul weather–and they must be identified and trained.

We neglect, at our peril, the people who will lead us in what we must do. We can talk global marketplace, knowledge economy, agility, innovation and all the other big ideas out there today until we’re bored, but if we don’t have the people who can navigate them, we are adrift.

The academy is nothing if not responsive to the organizations that will receive their graduates. When corporations gloried in the independent smokestacks that defined their organizations, universities provided the specialists who could fill them. Today, as the smokestacks are coming down, leading universities are gearing up to provide a new kind of leader.

At the Lally School of Management & Technology at Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute, for example, the MBA curriculum is built around five courses: creating and managing an enterprise; networks, innovation and value creation; developing innovative products and services; formulating and implementing a competitive business strategy; and managing the business implications of emerging technologies.

Is there any better description of the needs of corporations today?

Lally also addresses one of the most stubborn smokestacks: technology. At a time when technology is the strategic enabler of an organization’s mission, it is still too often left to languish in the hands of technologists–and, on campus, in its own building with its own degree program.

But here’s how Lally describes its mission: “The conventional style of business education isolated from technology is obsolete …the school’s mission is to develop technically sophisticated business leaders who are prepared to guide their organizations in the integration of technology for new products, new businesses and new systems.”

In the best-managed companies, business management and technology management have been converged–with decisions for both joint decisions, made by the same executives.Convergence requires a certain mindset among decision makers at every level of the firm. Executives, managers and employees need a working knowledge of both business and technology, and they need the insight that technology is no longer an afterthought but rather the competitive differentiator.

We wouldn’t think of telling a new hire or a business student, “You don’t need to understand accounting; someone else will do it for you.” But that’s often how we thought of technology in the past, in business

At the University of Pennsylvania, some 200 students are enrolled in the Jerome Fisher Program in Management & Technology, a joint venture between the School of Engineering and Applied Science and the Wharton Schoolof business. The venture is dedicated to meeting the “growing need for people who can bridge the management and technical disciplines.”

In endowing the program, Jerome Fisher, founder and chairman of the Nine West Group, said: “Understanding the relationship between business and technology is increasingly vital to building and maintaining competitive advantage in the global marketplace.”

As important as training or recruiting the right people, of course, is what they’re given to work with. The top leadership, and this includes the board, must create a convergence environment. As with any game-changing endeavor, it begins and resides at the top. It is never handed off for someone else to deal with. It is shared, however, at every level.

This requires decision-making bodies, beginning with a business-technology council at the C-suite level and continuing to project teams. This also requires a governance scheme that grants these bodies the authority and information they need to make wise decisions. It also requires personal incentives and decision-making processes that further convergence.

Andrew McAfee, an associate professor at Harvard Business School, and Eric Brynjolfsson, professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, recently wrote in the Harvard Business Review that the companies that are most successful in using technology spend considerably more time and money on vetting new hires and training them.

The enormous power of technology is creating greater pressure on line executives to discover innovative ways to use it, according to McAfee and Brynjolfsson. This is something that can’t be delegated. It’s not about installing new IT systems; it’s about discovering new business processes and models.

Management, McAfee and Brynjolfsson conclude, will become a “less comfortable profession─more unforgiving of mistakes, faster to weed out low performers. Even those executives who are prepared will not necessarily survive the inevitable turbulence.”

Those who do survive will reap the rewards, McAfee and Brynjolfsson maintain, until an even higher performer comes along with a better idea for using technology to foster innovation.

Faisal Hoque is chairman and CEO of BTM Corporation.  BTM innovates business models and enhances financial performance by converging business and technology with its unique products and intellectual property. © 2008 Faisal Hoque