What is Digital Leadership and Why is it Important?

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Written By:

Rhys Griffiths

Business Relationship Manager, Wales

The Open University


These are big questions for leaders and employers across Wales, particularly given the accelerated switch to digital ways of working precipitated by COVID-19.

Digital leadership and digital skills are something we care a lot about at The Open University. And as The Open University’s Business Relationship Manager in Wales, I talk to leaders from organisations of all types, sizes and sectors, and understand the digital challenges facing many of you. Some of you are at the beginning of your digital journey, while others are well on the road to digital transformation and are reaping the rewards. Whatever your stage of digital maturity, I would like to share some insights from research released by The Open University this year. I hope you find them useful.

Digital leadership has never been more important. Employers in Wales and across the rest of the UK that have digitally savvy leaders at the helm are performing better than those that don’t. They are more productive, more profitable and more agile and they have higher levels of employee engagement and lower attrition rates. These are some of the key findings of Leading in a Digital Age, a report published by The Open University at the beginning of the year.

The research was conducted before COVID-19 took hold in the UK and before the first lockdown happened. Since then, the need for digital leadership has intensified significantly.

Digital learning has to be a top priority for every employer and the thing with digital is that it keeps evolving. Becoming digitally savvy is not a one-off training event – it is an ongoing process of learning, relearning, upskilling and reskilling. And that’s the same for everyone – CEOs, heads of learning, middle managers, junior employees…

But, first and foremost, digital transformation has to come from the top, from leaders who are committed to investing in their digital skills and the digital skills of their workforce. Digitally mature employers have leaders who understand the power and potential of digital, who believe in digital and who want their organisation to be digital first.

Findings from the report

One of the standout messages from Leading in a Digital Age is that all employers, whether they are based in Wales or anywhere else in the UK, need digitally-savvy leaders if they are to survive and thrive in the digital age. The report highlights some significant benefits enjoyed by organisations that have leaders with strong digital skills.

Just look at these statistics:

  • Nine in 10 leaders (94%) who had received digital training went on to report organisational growth, a number which fell to just over six in 10 (63%) in leaders who had not received any training.
  • Leaders who invested in digital skills training are enjoying improved productivity (52%), improved employee engagement (51%), increased profit (35%), enhanced agility (34%) and improved employee retention (26%)

These figures speak for themselves. What’s more, the research shows that leaders who have invested in their own digital learning are much more likely to see the value in investing in the digital learning of employees. The report found that 77% of Welsh business leaders who had invested in their digital learning were more likely to encourage employees to do the same. When this happens, digital capabilities and ways of working are enhanced organisation-wide, leading to a digital learning culture.

However, not all Welsh business leaders have embraced digital learning. Some are held back by not knowing where to start with their own digital learning – this is the case for almost half of Welsh leaders (43%). That is quite a significant number.

In addition, almost two thirds (64%) are reactive to digital needs, buying in the skills they need rather than training up existing staff. This is something that needs to change. Employers need to work on building up internal resources, upskilling and reskilling existing employees to meet their digital needs of today and tomorrow.

The Open University’s Business Barometer 2020 shows that Welsh business leaders spent £51 million on temporary staff in the last year, with 71% of employers struggling to find the right skills to fill roles. This is despite one in four employers making redundancies to cut costs because of Covid-19.

But, skills are in short supply – it takes Welsh employers an extra three months to find candidates than it does the average UK employer.

Given this situation, employers should be doing more to boost internal digital skills.

There are many ways that employers can build digital skills and knowledge across the workforce and it doesn’t need to be expensive. In fact, it doesn’t have to cost anything – The Open University’s OpenLearn platform offers some great digital learning programmes, including accredited and badged courses, and they are largely free. We also have a hugely successful Applied Software Engineering Degree Apprenticeship in Wales.

Get in touch with Rhys if you need help starting your digital journey or taking it to the next level.