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Digitalisation: putting people at the centre of the technological progress

Digital leadership is one of the latest buzzwords when it comes to tackling the challenges and opportunities related to digitalisation. What is different now compared to 5 years ago with respect to digitalisation?

A few years back, digitalisation was a topic for specialists. Now, it has become a topic for everyone, because digitalisation impacted us all with the development and usage of smartphones, apps, the web, e-commerce and technology, in general. Even in the case of companies, digitalisation has shifted from an expert's question to everybody's question. It is marking everyone, one way or the other, through big data, the development of software, factory 4.0. etc. More and more individuals are involved in digitalisation, so it is fundamental to take the human factor - people - into account.

It's even more important when you are in a leadership function to make sure that, first of all, you involve everyone, not just the IT department, the Data managers or the Chief Digital Officers, but also people from R&D (research and development), production, commercial. Secondly, you need to bring everybody on board, so you have to inspire your staff by explaining what's going on. That way you involve them and get their commitment faster. You can do more and more with digitalisation, and that would be expected in terms of technological progress, but it's not only about technological progress, it's also about people. In my view, that's the main difference in digitalisation practices over time.

From a C-level perspective, what is key to mastering a company's digital strategy and digital assets?

It's key to have the vision, and ask the right questions: where do we need to introduce digitalisation in our systems, processes, way of working so that we keep abreast of what's going on and keep ahead of competition? This will help a company be more efficient, quicker, more precise. Digitalisation is a way to improve operational excellence.

Take for example the automotive industry. If you go on a company plant in an automotive industry, you can see everything is automatised. Automatisation is based on digitalisation. Consider companies that are very good in the distribution arena, as well. One example is E.Leclerc, the French company, that is very good with customer programs. They are mastering the data through very precise CRMs (Customer Relationship Management), building programs that fit every individuals, promotion systems and customer retention - it's really micromarketing based on digitalisation. Another is the e-commerce Leboncoin, a website where you can buy and sell things. Its core business bases itself on using data and algorithm that allows people by sell or buy efficiently. It's important to see in the end, based on your own industry, where to be good at digitalisation, and then digitalise.

Organisations with women in leadership positions seem to have decreased in the number of board seats held by women, according to a report by Deloitte. For example, women serving on CAC 40 boards are now counted at 42%, compared to 2015 when numbers showed 48%. How do you see this trend in connection to leadership practices, especially in countries such as France?

France is at the leading edge when it comes to women on board, and this is thanks to the Copé-Zimmermann law which enstore quotas. The quota states that a Board needs to have at least 40% of one gender, so it has either 40% women and 60% men, or 40% men and 60% women. Since the law passed in 2011, the percentage of women on boards automatically increased from about 13% - 15% to above 40%, and that's for CAC 40 companies only. If three years ago, we were not at this level, currently, we're at about 42%. This is, however, not fixed, and it depends on the number of board members and on re-elections; board members are elected for three to four years' manadates. Companies manage to reach the minimum level to be in line with the law, and then choose depending on the talent they want on board, men or women representatives. For example, the French energy company, ENGIE had at one point over 60% women in their board, which meant they were no longer compliant with the law. It's not about 40% and increasing the number, it's really being respectful of the law, with a 40% minimum of one gender.

The next step is to go from 40% women representatives on board to 40% in the executive committees, in the leadership teams. We need to make sure that men on boards and chairmen really understand the value of women on leadership positions. This is clearly recognised by external entities through various reports on explaining how women are creating better performance, creating better atmosphere in the boards and so on. These women are becoming role models, and this is very important as there were a few women role models up until now. At present, we are not there yet, and this is really where things need to move.

Former CEO of Lenovo in France, Mrs. Elisabeth Moreno, mentioned in an interview that "mastering digital technology is a factor for women to progress in their careers". In your opinion, how does digital fluency create leadership opportunities for women? I think companies are slowly but surely changing, a lot of top companies have diversity programs to promote women. Women really need to dare, to put forward their talent and skills, so that they can get leadership positions. As mentioned previously, companies are developing their business with the help of digitalisation, and women - the few that are in tech - who are digital experts or are digitally agile will clearly have more opportunities offered to them, just by the essence of the numbers. Women are as competent as men, no question about that.

The big difference is the importance you attribute to people in digitalisation. I think a good digital leader is someone who is able to inspire, to have a vision, to include digitalisation in his/her vision, and be able to share this with all employees. The leader needs to make sure it's not something which it's imposed top-down and that everyone has an active role to play, understand their role in the development of the company and its digitalisation process. It's not only a question for leaders, but for everyone: how can I impact the company through what I do?

These type of leaders are curious people, open to what's going on in and outside of the company; they are able to call upon talent and expertise, either internally or externally so that they can enrich their vision and the program they're building. I also think that they need to be humble enough to try things and recognise when something is not going the way it should be, stop, change and go in another direction. This takes agility and humility, because the world is a - as French say - "long fleuve tranquille" (a long calm river). The world is uncertain, marked by changes such as globalisation, the evolution of economy and technology. If you are not ready to understand the different facets of any given situation, then you won't be able to manage this uncertainty, more so in a digitalised world.

Note : Cecile Bernheim is a signatory of the ARBORUS charter for inclusive artificial intelligence

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