Technology has repeatedly reshaped our world since the foundations of IEEE were laid more than a century ago. In the past, technology played a secondary but supportive role. The primary drivers of change involved social, political, and cultural forces. Today, however, in its influence on society and humanity, technology has the lead role.
Humanity has experienced a global sea change as distributed computing, robotics and automation, personal communications, and cyberspace have evolved. Take just one example: the evolution of the telephone in the past 30 years. Today’s telephone is a multifunctional device that provides for interaction that includes face-to-face video chats, text messaging, e-mail, and social media, along with the same voice calls that people have been making for more than a century. In addition, our mobile devices can help us when we’re lost, provide real-time language translation, and monitor our personal health and fitness—all while providing the computing power of the supercomputers of decades past.
The telephone’s evolution as a driver of social change, however, has been even more remarkable. Mobile phones in Africa are reshaping commerce. Using a mobile money transfer tool called M-PESA (pesa is Swahili for money), funds can be transferred between bank accounts with text messages. In Europe, mobile phones are vital tools for health monitoring and for enabling the elderly to live more independently. Inexpensive smartphone attachments, for example, monitor blood sugar levels for people with diabetes and even image the eye and prescribe corrective lenses. And everywhere, continuously, viewers and listeners alike are using mobile phones as their gateway to information and entertainment.
Mobile telephones, however, are only one of many technologies driving change in our world. Cloud computing has altered the way we create, process, store, and access information. Robotic assistants are changing how surgery is done. Wars are waged in cyberspace, and crimes are committed with a mouse click. Intel futurist Brian David Johnson, an IEEE member, predicts that in the next few years, the size of meaningful computational power will shrink to near-zero, enabling a present-day supercomputer to be contained in a wristwatch or an article of clothing.
It is, to paraphrase Shakespeare, a brave new world.
an eye to the future
But who will be the leaders in this brave new world? What skills will technology professionals and organizations need to lead in this environment?
A recent survey of CEOs by PriceWaterhouseCoopers, an accounting services company, provides insight. According to the survey, industry leaders are looking for employees to do more than perform well as skilled professionals. They also want them to anticipate external issues—such as public policies and regulation, and the convergence of technologies—that affect their fields of interest. The CEOs also place high value on the ability to work collaboratively—with fellow professionals, stakeholders, and others—to create comprehensive, balanced, and effective initiatives and solutions. The ability to build diverse and well-aligned partnerships will be a hallmark of successful leaders in our fields.
Similarly, tomorrow’s technology leaders must work as synthesists—individuals who can draw expertise from an array of disciplines and bring that knowledge to bear on multidisciplinary problems. And they will need to solve these problems as part of a more mobile workforce. A little more than one third of the global workforce is currently mobile; that percentage will only increase as advances in technology redefine what it means to be at work.
A successful leader in such an environment will have to draw not only on knowledge acquired from formal education and experience but also on what are considered the modern professional’s “soft” skills: written and oral communications, teamwork, critical thinking, innovation, and entrepreneurship.
Some have called this the rise of the T-shaped individual, a reference to a deep knowledge of a single field of interest coupled with other broad abilities—the aforementioned soft skills and a firm grounding in collaboration.
Organizations also must evolve if they’re to lead in this changed environment. Our world is becoming more complex and competitive as technological advances arrive with ever-increasing speed. IEEE as an organization must evolve to provide responsive and adaptable leadership that supports the needs of our members, our professions, and the public. It must be done in an environment of increasing strategic complexity, amid the uncertainties of a changing and dynamic world.
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This article appears in the March 2016 print issue as “The New Face of Leadership.”