Book Review: Leading in the Digital World

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My friend and colleague, Art Petty, says that I am the toughest book reviewer he has ever seen. Keep that in mind as you read this rave review.

Leading in The Digital World is part of the Management on The Cutting Edge series from MIT Press. Paul Michelman, editor-in-chief of the Sloan Management Review, says they want to publish books that meet three criteria. They should be “meaningful to practice, grounded in evidence, and built for the future.” Leading in The Digital World meets all three of those criteria in spades.

The author states the book’s promise this way:

“Regardless of whether you’re a current executive or a business student, this book will prepare you to lead in environments that prize developing and executing new ideas over making existing things faster and cheaper.”

Amit Mukherjee keeps that promise. If you’re an older executive, you’re probably sure that the shift from an analog world to a digital one is important. You probably don’t know why or how it’s happening. If you’re a younger manager, you don’t have any problem understanding the digital world. Your problem may be that you only have experience of a narrow sliver of it. You may understand the idea of radical transparency, for example, but not know much about the challenges of artificial intelligence. Wherever you stand, if you intend to do business for the next 20 – 50 years, this book is must-read.

Amit Mukherjee laid out the book in four main sections. He provides clear analysis and conclusions, buttressed by third-party research, personal research, and his own experience. He shares seven principles that tie the sections together.

Chapter one stands alone. I think of it as a preamble to the four main sections. It’s titled “The Birth and Obsolescence of Leadership Ideologies.” Mukherjee describes what he calls “epochal” changes. He calls the technology that drives those changes “long arc of impact technologies.” This chapter is a good review of the development of leadership practice. It’s also an excellent description of how multiple forces interact to produce a result.

The first main part of the book is “What Do Digital Technologies Really Do?”  Mukherjee defines six principles that govern how digital technologies are changing work and organizational structures. He returns to them again and again throughout the book. Here they are:

Principle 1: Digital technologies reduce, or eliminate, the value of an entire group’s skills or knowledge and enable – and may even require – the automation of its work.

Principle 2: Digital technologies augment the capabilities of less-skilled people, enabling them to undertake tasks they couldn’t earlier.

Principle 3: Digital technologies enable – and may even require – work to be distributed over time and geography (across outposts of a company and across companies).

Principle 4: Digital technologies enable – and even require – work to be increasingly thought-driven instead of being muscle-powered.

Principle 5: Digital technologies create needs that aren’t predictable and/or add disproportionately great value.

Principle 6: Digital technologies expose organizations to radical transparency, which may – or may not – benefit them individually, or their networks, or society at large.

After the chapter on six principles, there’s one entire chapter devoted to the seventh principle. Here it is:

Principle 7: Digital technologies interact with and affect an organization’s external environment.

The second main section of the book is “Leading for Creativity.” Mukherjee describes why creativity is necessary in the digital world. He also demonstrates why inclusive organizations are more likely to be creative and successful. There’s a lot of data here. Much of it is about how the principles play out in different cultural situations.

The next section is titled “Guiderails for Future Efforts.” The most important part of this is the bit on “developing strategic intent.” The author does an excellent job of taking the idea of strategic intent and transferring it from a military context to a business context.

If a business wants to be successful in the world governed by the seven principles, it must be flexible. Decision-making must be at the margins of the organization. Organizations will be coupled technologically. Decisions in one company will affect other companies. This section also gets into the nitty-gritty of the ethical challenges that a digital world presents.

The final section of the book is “Where Next? Building a Personal Leadership Philosophy.”

In a Nutshell

This is a great book. It’s great because the content is well-supported, well-reasoned, and well-written. Amit Mukherjee uses his seven principles to tie the book together. It’s a cogent whole, not a simple collection of insights. If you want to make sense of the changing digital world Leading in The Digital World is must-read.

Other Resources

Ted Kinni’s review of Leading in a Digital World in Strategy and Business.

Ted also suggested an article by Amit Mukherjee titled “5 Musts for Next-Gen Leaders.

You can check out some of my highlights and notes from this book on GoodReads.


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