Published on in InnovationDigital Transformation

When we set up a discussion around ‘people power’ for the Fujitsu Executive Discussion Evening, the world was largely oblivious to the prospect of a global pandemic.

A few months on, the crisis led us to question whether a conversation about power would still be relevant whilst in the midst of dealing with its impact, but we concluded that it would be, so we were delighted when over 100 guests joined us in September 2020.

The debate about power in its myriad forms is always fascinating. And when you mix in a global pandemic, the wholesale shift to remote working and closure of businesses and schools in the world over, you have a veritable melting pot of possibilities to stir-up. What on earth would we uncover about the changing nature of power in this unique era?

Our hypothesis is that authority and influence in business, government and society has shifted in recent years, fuelled by the increasing prevalence of technology in our lives. In business, decision-making no longer happens behind closed doors in the boardroom, and in government the opinion of ‘the people’ is sought and acted upon because authority is no longer a linear concept. The institutional ivory tower is toppling in favour of a more distributed model because technology makes it possible to access and influence many more people than ever before.

We invited two very different speakers to test our hypothesis and help us explore other factors that are driving the shift towards people power.

First up was Dame Inga Beale, former CEO of Lloyds of London, who was personally challenged with transforming a 300 year-old-business – or see it consigned to the history books. Inga told how she actively harnessed ‘people power’ to drive the transformation and modernisation of an outdated institution and conveyed her passion for engaging diverse groups of people. The key for Inga was first to listen to their voice; “If you engage people in the right way you can make transformation a reality.”

Carl Miller, research director at think tank, Demos, came next, and explored a very different world, first outlining how the shape of power is shifting in society at large. Using emotive language about power ‘going wild’ he revealed some of the new (invisible) power bases that are operating outside of traditional boundaries. Giving us an insight into the mind-set of the hacker he unveiled the ‘new aristocracy’ that wields far more power than the official leaders of today thanks to its ability to leverage technology and information to create influence.  Carl highlighted how ‘people power’ has seen authority and influence shift away from traditional hierarchies, exposing both businesses and governments to an unknown yet highly influential community of unofficial leaders.

For me, the outcome of the discussion comprised three sides of the same coin (if you’ll indulge the unusual metaphor); as a leader, people power can either be something that is ‘done to you’; or you can choose to positively harness it to create the impetus for change. Either way (the third side), you need technology on your side to activate any significant change, particularly in today’s climate.

The outcome of the discussion was that leaders should be front-footed in embracing people power rather than seeing it as a challenge to their authority.

So what about the role of technology?

Technology is, of course, driving many of the shifts we are seeing in authority and influence, by making it possible for new networks to form, new power bases to thrive, and communities to find one another and connect around a common cause.

When Inga joined Lloyds of London as CEO, one of her primary transformation initiatives centred on the digitisation of processes that were still being carried out on slips of paper. Previous attempts to modernise Lloyds had failed, because people felt disconnected from new initiatives, therefore Inga’s strategy was to bring them into decisions and allow them to shape the future solution. Inclusion was at the heart of Inga’s approach, and she was passionate about the need to respect and welcome all kinds of people into key discussions and decisions about technology.

Carl’s assertion that we all need to be ‘more like hackers’ was well-intended, sending a shot across the boughs of those entrenched in hierarchy to introduce greater fluidity and build consensus in a flatter, more egalitarian way. He shared the story of the role hackers played in the 2014 Sunflower Revolution in Taiwan, where government was finally persuaded that it would be better to engage political activists than to ostracise them, even providing them with an online platform (‘vTaiwan’) to build consensus (read more about that here).

Whilst Inga was keen to demonstrate that for her, harnessing people power was a conscious and deliberate choice, Carl called on us all to adopt the ‘hacker mind-set’ to ensure we don’t get caught out by the new style of power, executed on social networks, which is very different to the familiar (structured) form we’ve known in the past.

Either way, it was noticeable in both cases that real change doesn’t need to come from ‘the top’. It can equally come from ‘the people’ if they feel empowered, engaged and enabled. In recent times we have seen the impact of people power as major decisions about our future have been influenced by the collective voice of the people. Now, with the advent of a global pandemic and all the shifts in work and life it has created, who can possibly predict what will happen next? I think you’ll find we are shaping our own patch of history, right here, right now, so let’s not waste it. As leaders, let’s harness people power, and as people, let’s effect change in a way that can shape a better future for us all.

If you found this interesting, you may also enjoy some of our other EDE insights, found here. Fujitsu executive Discussion Evenings take place twice a year, bringing together leaders to discuss and debate the most pertinent and challenging topics of the moment.

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