Leadership in a digital age: networks, digital competence and social networks

I have been lately involved in four events related to how businesses should address a change of era from an industrial age towards a digital age in general, and how to step inside of social networking sites in particular. The macro view I presented it in August in Santiago de Chile (virtually) at The Project‘s Managing XXI – Executive Skills for a Digital Economy training programme, and in twice in November in Barcelona, at the Spanish edition of The Project‘s Managing XXI – Executive Skills for a Digital Economy. The micro vision I spoke about it at the Jornada per a emprenedors “Xarxes socials” [Entrepreneurs’ Conference on Social Networking Sites], in Tortosa (Spain).

When we speak about leadership in a digital age, we use to list plenty of “new” skills that the “new” leader should have, namely: problem solving, critical thinking, team-working, etc. While I might share this or any other combination of skills that one may make up, the problem I find with this approach is that it focusses too much on the consequences and not on the cause, on trying to deal with the resulting scenario of the deep changes we are witnessing instead of trying to understand the causes behind that very same change. In other words, most lists of 21st Century Skills are symptomatic when they should be systemic.

In the following interview (in Spanish) for The Project I tried to depict what is a leader in a digital era and, by construction, what is an “Enterprise 2.0” — a term with which I do not feel very comfortable, but that everybody seems to understand (which is what matters).

The baseline is that we have succeeded in digitizing information and communications, with two major consequences: the end of scarcity and transaction costs, and the substitution of human mind-work by machines. In this context, two main strategies arise:

  • The substitution of hierarchical structures by horizontal networks, which imply being able to work very differently, enabling connections.
  • The need to master digital skills — a complex set of — as the new landscape is digital.


In an industrial society, goods are scarce (apples are not infinite, nor are sheep or any other resource) and working with them requires transaction costs.

Hierarchies and intermediaries used to be efficient and effective ways to cut down transaction costs while working with scarce goods. Information — which was embedded in physical supports as books or brains, both of them scarce — was also scarce and costly to handle. Thus, decision making had to be centralized: only the one on top would be able to have all the information necessary to make an informed decision.

Graphic: Leadership in an Industrial Society

When we digitize our inputs (information), the way we apply labour (knowledge), capital (computers), and our output (information and/or knowledge), goods become non-scarce (as material goods used to be) and dealing with them (storage, “handling”, transformation, distribution, etc.) becomes costless.

The hierarchical architecture becomes now a burden: information has to artificially circulate along the chain of command, infringing an added cost in matters of time and, sometimes, matter. When information is abundant and transaction costs are few, networks are more effective and efficient than hierarchies. That is a fact.

Graphic: Leadership in an Industrial Society

In a digital society, the good leader is the one that enables the network to be, to run smoothly, to create connections between all the nodes, to shift the process of decision making to the nearest and most appropriate node, more likely to be much more knowledgeable about a specific matter than any other node in the network.

Digital skills

Not only understanding that the network is the new architecture is what is needed, but also being able to live in it. And as networks are boosted by digital technologies, a collection of digital competences apply.

An explanation of such a collection can be found at Towards a comprehensive definition of digital skills. I will just list them here:

  • Technological Literacy: HOW
  • Informational Literacy: WHAT
  • Media Literacy: WHERE
  • Digital Presence: WHO
  • e-Awareness: WHY

When asked for an example where all these skills can be put into practice, I like to cite Analyzing digital literacy with a single simple tweet, where each and every conception of digital literacy can be explored by using a message on Twitter.

Social networking sites

A typical question that usually comes at this point is whether firms should be on social networking sites. In an interview (also in Spanish) entitled Redes sociales: ¿oportunidad u obligación? (Social networking sites: opportunity or obligation?) I talked about this.

The main points of the interview are the following four:

  • Living in the social networking sites is both a problem and a requisite of the “new times”. On the one hand, as social animals, we have to acknowledge that social networking sites are boosting our social potential: committing with a cause, hanging out with friends or engaging in collaborative work are much more easy when gone digital. On the other hand, if we are knowledge workers (and we increasingly are), social networking sites are tools which usage we should master.
  • Digital technologies are becoming general purpose technologies. This means that each and every aspect of our lives will be affected and transformed by digital technologies. And now that we just added the “social layer” onto the Internet, we will never more be able to tell a social networking site from the “rest of” the Internet and vice versa.
  • This is a change of era, not a collection of small changes. Institutions will be radically transformed as will be the concept of citizen (or worker, in the context of businesses).
  • Thus, we have to acknowledge and understand those changes. And we have to acquire the necessary (digital) skills to deal with the new scenario that is unfolding before our eyes.

Posters a the International Conference on Information and Communication Technologies and Development — ICTD2010

I am presenting two posters at the International Conference on Information and Communication Technologies and Development (ICTD2010).

The posters are, actually, the usual poster and the corresponding academic paper explaining what the poster is picturing. Below can be found the two papers and the two posters for anyone to download. The posters are a set of 8 slides in A3 size plus a first slide that maps how to build the puzzle so it all ends up with the actual A0-size poster.

Peña-López, I. (2010). Towards a comprehensive model of the digital economy. Poster for the International Conference on Information and Communication Technologies and Development – ICTD2010. Egham: UNESCO Chair in ICT4D.
Peña-López, I. (2010). Policy-making for digital development: the role of the government. Poster for the International Conference on Information and Communication Technologies and Development – ICTD2010. Egham: UNESCO Chair in ICT4D.

Information and Communication Technologies and Development (2010)

ICT4HD. Ismael Peña-López: The role of governments in promoting the Information Society for reducing the Digital Divide

Notes from the I International Workshop on Research in ICT for Human Development, at the Universidad Rey Juan Carlos, and held in Fuenlabrada, Spain, on May 13th and 14th, 2010. More notes on this event: ict4hd10.

Ismael Peña-López: The role of governments in promoting the Information Society for reducing the Digital Divide

If you cannot see the slides please visit <a href="http://ictlogy.net/?p=3368">http://ictlogy.net/?p=3368</a>

I International Workshop on Research in ICT for Human Development (2010)

e-Readiness and measuring the Information Society 101

In an exchange of e-mails some weeks ago with Mark Graham from the Oxford Internet Institute, I ended up drafting the outline of what an introduction to e-readiness and to measuring the Information Society could look like.

It has become usual to criticise (and I agree with that) the lack of monitoring and evaluation practices in ICT4D projects — see e.g. the latest example I’ve read about it in the interesting Worst practice in ICT use in education by Michael Trucano — and, notwithstanding, little attention is given in ICT4D courses to the macro indicators related with development and the Information Society, that is:

According to this, now follow what I think would be the basics in an introduction to the concepts and tools around the measurement of the Information Society.

In my opinion, I think there’s a huge revolution in the way the Information Society is measured in 2003 with George Sciadas‘s work Monitoring the Digital Divide… and Beyond that ended up in his acclaimed report From the Digital Divide to Digital Opportunities, being this second reference a perfect starting point for this whole subject.

An adaptation of this methodology (and an interesting reflection) for the case of Africa can be found in Towards an African ICT e-Index: Towards evidence based ICT policy in Africa by Alison Gillwald and Christoph Stork.

Sciadas‘s methodology became somewhat mainstream when was adopted by the International Telecommunication Union to build their ICT Development Index (IDI), which is a merger of two previous indices: ITU’s Digital Opportunity Index (an infrastructure-biased index) and UNCTAD’s ICT Opportunity Index (the first adaptation of Sciadas’s).

Information about the ICT Development Index can be mainly found in:

Besides ITU’s index (which we can assume as to have become the “official” United Nations’ Index), I think it would be very good worth mentioning other international and well reputed indices/tools like:

To end up this introducion, four more recommendations:

ITU, Measuring the Information Society 2010: the digital divide is not narrowing

The International Telecommunication Union has issued their yearly report on the measurement of the Information Society, e-Readiness and/or the Digital Divide: Measuring the Information Society 2010.

The report provides new and up-to-date calculations of the ICT Development Index, which are then used to back the statement that The digital divide is shrinking slightly. The problem is that, in my opinion, the digital divide is widening. How is it so?

Four years ago I already had this same sort of reflection then concerning the World Telecommunication/ICT Development Report 2006. The ITU’s calculations were then technically right, and nevertheless my disagreement was twofold. On the one hand, I thought that not only euclidean distances but the absolute values themselves of telephone penetration should also to be taken into account; on the other hand, the ITU just did not took into account broadband to define the digital divide, an (in my opinion) unforgivable omission.

This year the problem comes over again. The report repeatedly states that the digital divide is shrinking. To be able to do so, the ITU creates four groups (high, upper, middle, low) in which economies are aggregated; averages are calculated et, voilà, the digital divide is shrinking. But we know the problem with averages: (1) I’ve got two apples, you’ve got none, on average we’ve got one each; (2) my left foot stands in frozen water, my right one in boiling water and, on average, I’m pretty comfortable, thank you very much.

Let us look instead at what has happened at the disaggregate level. And to do so, let us build a hypothetical model where, in the last year (from 2007 to 2008) every economy would have reduced by a half the distance they had in the previous year with the leader. That is:

IDIey = IDIey-1 + 1/2(IDIly-1 – IDIey-1)

Where e is a specific economy, l is the leading economy (the economy with a highest IDI value), and y is the year. If we plotted the IDI values for year 2007 against these hypothetical values for year 2008, the result is:

Graphic: Hypothetical evolution of the ICT Development Index
Source: ITU (2010). Measuring the Information Society 2010
for year 2007 values (year 2008 are made up).

If all blue dots stayed just on the red line, nothing would have happened. As the lesser digitally developed countries are far from it — while the higher digitally developed ones are closer to it — it means that their IDI values for this year are higher than in the previous one, and they are higher the more distant they initially were in relationship with the leader, whose IDI value has remained constant. This is what a shrinking digital divide would look like.

Let us look now at what has happened between 2002 and 2007 and 2007 and 2008, which is how data is provided in the two last Measuring the Information Society reports:

As can be easily seen, the evolution of the IDI during the 2002-2008 is just the opposite to what we should be expecting was the digital divide really shrinking. Instead, we see that the economies with higher IDI values (i.e. more digitally developed) increased their IDI values during that period much more than the countries with lower values. Yes, all economies achieved higher degrees of digital development as measured by the ICT Development Index, but the richer, the more development achieved, not the other way round, thus increasing the digital divide, not shrinking it.

My calculations could be wrong and my approach could be plain wrong, but aggregates usually are worst approaches than disaggregates. Besides, people wants to hear bad news (the digital divide is shrinking) rather than listening to wet blankets. The problem is that if we do believe the divide is shrinking then we can shift our attention and resources elsewhere, thus worsening a situation that was even worse than admitted.

Update 20100301

Giacomo Zanello suggests in the comments to analyze whether the distance of a specific country with the leader has either increased or decreased. That is, to calculate this (I slightly modify his proposal to adjust it to the nomenclature already used and to produce mostly positive values):

Δ IDI_distance_to_leaderey = |IDIly – IDIey| – |IDIly-1 – IDIey-1|

The results are even more clear than the ones I had already used. By using Zanello’s exercise, we do see that the distance to the leader in tems of IDI values increases the less digitally developed countries are. In other words: lesser digitally developed countries are increasingly far from higher digitally developed countries, hence the digital divide is increasing, and it increases more the worst you are.

Thank you so much for the tip, Giacomo!

More Information

PhD Thesis Defence: Measuring digital development for policy-making: Models, stages, characteristics and causes

Today it’s my PhD Thesis Defence, with the following people:

Dissertation supervisor: Tim Kelly

Composition of the committee:

  • President: Tim Unwin (University of London)
  • Secretary: Joan Torrent Sellens (UOC)
  • Members: Robin Mansell (London School of Economics)
  • Bruno Lanvin (INSEAD)
  • Laura Sartori (Università di Bologna)


  • Gustavo Cardoso (Instituto Superior de Ciências do Trabalho e da Empresa)
  • Rosa Borge Bravo (UOC)

The slides for my PhD Thesis Defence. Enough said…

Go to original site to see the slides: http://ictlogy.net/?p=2852

More information about the PhD, here: http://ictlogy.net/tag/phd


Update post-defence:
The examining committee says… Excellent!!!