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Technology leadership for non-tech executives


Business leaders know that to keep their organizations competitive, they need to keep up with new technologies, whether it’s generative artificial intelligence, machine learning, or quantum computing.

But how much do executives really need to know to lead their companies’ efforts to understand and deploy emerging technologies?

Senior-level leaders can’t be experts on every new technology product, service, or innovation, said senior lecturerwho teaches the MIT Sloan Executive Education course “Essential IT for Non-IT Executives.” But they do have to hone their critical thinking skills so they can distinguish between hype and reality.

This often involves rethinking assumptions, Westerman said in a recent webinar. “You don’t have to keep up with the bleeding edge of things, but you do need to push the boundaries to help your organization prepare.”  

Here is some of Westerman’s guidance for non-IT executives.

Challenge long-held assumptions

“Technology changes quickly, but organizations change much more slowly,” Westerman said, citing his first law of digital innovation.

“The limiting factor is not technology or even your knowledge of where the technology’s going,” Westerman said. “It’s the readiness of your organization to take advantage of these things. As a leader, you need to think about what’s possible.”

To help, leaders must have a clear and compelling vision. That way, they can get employees excited about change by painting a positive, enticing picture of the future — one in which employees play a central and active role. “It’s not something you’re doing to them,” Westerman said. “It’s something you’re doing with them.”

Sometimes, in developing that vision, executives will have to challenge their existing assumptions about what works in their company, what customers and employees truly want, and what types of tasks technology can help with.

“It’s breaking through some of the limits you’ve lived with,” Westerman said. “Are the assumptions in your brain keeping up with the technology and where the markets are going?” One good gauge of whether an innovation is hype or truly valuable is whether competing companies have embraced new approaches, he noted.

Work to clean up your “legacy spaghetti”

“Getting your IT in shape is huge,” Westerman said. “If your systems are just a mass of spaghetti, then it’s really hard to do anything else.” 

Prioritize connectedness by uniting disjointed systems, ideally in a way that gives a single, comprehensive view of your customer.  Also consider implementing application programming interfaces to break systems into manageable but connected chunks. That way, when you clean up one system, the others don’t need to change, Westerman said.

This cleanup work should be done hand in hand with IT departments, which means executives must establish good relationships with IT managers and employees. Together, they can then make the hard calls and changes to benefit the business.

Promote a digital-ready culture

“Culture is the job of bosses,” Westerman said. This starts with making sure your organization is agile and always innovating. “When an innovation fails because ‘the culture rejected it,’ whose fault is that?” he asked.

Managers need to either promote innovations that work with the culture or work to change the culture. And most traditional companies today need to make their cultures more ready for the digital age.

Start by promoting the right values: speed and fast learning rather than perfection; greater autonomy within clear guardrails; and a willingness to work with anyone, whether within your unit or not. Then make those values real by building agile practices and encouraging your people to innovate at speed.  

Many successful large companies have created an innovation lab, Westerman said. The key to such labs’ success is having executives continue to work closely with the innovation team rather than delegating and stepping away. “You’ve got to work with them, because their value in making this technology work is changing the business,” he said. “You’ve got to be the coach: encouraging them, pushing them to do better, and linking them to other execs who can use their help.”

Encourage AI experimentation — with boundaries

Given the availability of artificial intelligence and generative AI tools like ChatGPT, now is the time to let employees experiment — but with clear guidelines.

Leaders can help by developing specific limits and rules for employees around how they use AI. For example, rules might make it clear that private company data shouldn’t be shared or that employees have to be vigilant about the possibility of plagiarism.

“If you let them swim in the pool but with some wide swim lanes so they know where the [boundaries] are, you can start to find really interesting things,” Westerman said.

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Another useful approach is to think about generative AI tools as you would a corporate intern — one that gets smarter and smarter over time. While interns can be extremely helpful and save you valuable time, as their mentor, you do want to check their work.

Finally, looking at new technologies through an ethical lens should be the job not just of regulators and rule-makers but of business leaders and rank-and-file employees, Westerman said.

“As these technologies get into the hands of everybody, that means everybody needs to be able use them ethically,” Westerman said — which includes being able to identify biases, understand issues regarding intellectual property, and implement AI in a way that augments rather than replaces the workforce.

Be consistent with your vendors

With plenty of tech startups offering new generative AI tools, it can be tempting to buy a bunch and try to plug them into your IT infrastructure, Westerman said. This can be a useful way to experiment, but it can also create unnecessary complexity.

Using a cheap (or not-so-cheap) bleeding-edge tool can get you started, but you need to factor in integration costs, service, maintenance, and the likelihood that a provider will stay in business, Westerman warned.

His advice: Go ahead and experiment, but also consider the long term. Startups are moving quickly, but your existing vendors are likely to add the new features you need relatively soon. “These features tend to enter the products you’re already using over time,” Westerman said. “That may be the easiest way to adopt them.”

Still, as you adopt new technologies, ensure that the vendors you work with allow open interfaces so you have flexibility to experiment without having to buy every new extension or innovation from that same vendor.

Rethink your strategic planning process

Today’s breakneck pace of technological change means that top-down strategic planning at preset intervals no longer works.

Business leaders who still plot strategy in the traditional five-year intervals wind up with plans that are “out of date the minute they start,” Westerman said. “You can’t know what the customer expectations will be.”

Instead, executives must be more agile in scoping out technology and setting direction, Westerman said. “It’s being more emergent and pivoting every step of the way, because you can’t know where the technology will go.”

Read next: How to set technology strategy in the age of AI

For more info Tracy Mayor Senior Associate Director, Editorial (617) 253-0065