Robin Knowles: ‘We support non-digital leaders’

20th June 2018

Sarah Rees headshot

Sarah Rees

As Robin describes it, Digital Leaders seems an incongruent name for the organisation created to support the leaders seeking to transform their businesses for a digital world they don’t yet feel certain of.

“It is a bit of an oxymoron,” admits Robin Knowles, founder and CEO of the organisation, “but we couldn’t call it undigital leaders! And it certainly hasn’t put anyone off.” In eight years, Digital Leaders has attracted great and growing interest from a generation of leaders trying to transform for a digital world. Members numbering 90,000 across the world enjoy content and community via a platform that nurtures digital confidence in those who must transform their businesses, public services and charities, or face failure.

“To be a leader of any organisation, you are a capable person. You have the organisational, strategic, management and cultural leadership skills, and yet you are held below the water line by this term ‘digital’ that makes you feel uncomfortable,” explains Robin. “Digital Leaders is supportive, and sharing knowledge sits at the heart of what we do. Ultimately, we create a safe space for people to ask experts and their peers for insights and help.”

Robin freely admits he is no ‘technologist’ himself, and has had a career that bears testament to an overriding interest in people. “I just really like people. I suppose I’m sort of a fixer,” he muses. “I have always felt that technology was there to help people, and it was just about communication and connection – helping people tell their peers why they should care, then helping them access it.”

He started his fixing in the physical world, studying Land Economy at Cambridge – mainly to qualify as a Chartered Surveyor – before joining a property firm. His role involved advising the Government and dealing with market failure, which proved rewarding.

“I didn’t like to see victims of market failure, particularly in inner cities. My work helping these people and solving the issues between developers and clients, gave me an enormous sense of empowerment. I could really see the value in what I was doing.”

Such altruism led him to a project of getting Wifi into public libraries in the UK and eventually the position of Consultant Advocate to the European Commission for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Global Libraries programme. This role threw Robin into the sphere of leaders and influencers within the technology industry in the US, EU and here in the UK, such as Bill Gates and Martha Lane-Fox. Newly established networks and ideas prompted the creation of the National Digital Conference (NDC) in 2006 – his first involvement in supporting leaders trying to leverage technology for its economic and social benefits.

“It was incredibly well-received, but it offered just two days of support a year,” he says of the NDC. “We had this great community of engaged people, but we needed to be doing more.” Enter Digital Leaders in 2010, answering the call for help from leaders trying to cope with the coalition Government’s ‘digital by default’ agenda.

Robin is keen to point out that he curates the platform, with all expert content provided by the digital leaders themselves. He works to make this content accessible and foster a community, whether via online engagement or through talks, presentations and events across their 12 UK regions.

“Digital Leaders combines community with content. We aim to have 20% of the members in the room who are the evangelists, and really proficient, and 80% in the positions of responsibility for driving change but in need of more help. It’s not a bad formula – the 20% share their knowledge and support networking, and the whole group gains momentum,” explains Robin. The goal is to build digital confidence and develop a digital mindset so leaders and their organisations can be robust about change.

“Talking about digital transformation is a lot easier than doing it,” says Robin “particularly for existing organisations that are not starting with a clean sheet of paper”. Leaders of existing businesses are encountering disruption they have no previous experience of to draw on. “Martin Sorrell described it as trying to change the engines on a plane while flying,” continues Robin. “We cannot overstate the importance of leadership in digital transformation, and it’s difficult – you can have a vision for where you want to get to, but what do you do first tomorrow? It’s also about timing, the whole ecosystem needs to change with you. I don’t think we’ll ever achieve our goal of digital confidence because the endpoint will keep moving.”

The scale of the challenge doesn’t seem to concern Robin, who enjoys great personal satisfaction from his role as CEO. “It really is the best job in the world,” he tells me more than once and confidently shakes off the question about work eating into personal time. “It doesn’t feel like work to me! But I also don’t work silly hours – you need the time to think.”

Fatigue is also kept at bay by his natural optimism about the digital future. “I’m interested to see where all this stuff goes,” he says encouragingly, although admits that vast infrastructure changes will be required to achieve positive outcomes. “For example, it has already been demonstrated how much AI and robotics can help older people in their homes, but the robots struggle to navigate around chairs and tables, so we will eventually build homes designed for robots first. The architecture profession will adjust.”

For that to happen across all sectors, leaders will have to be ready for wholesale change. This requires digital behaviours like empathy and collaboration over technical knowhow.

“If we can help leaders to communicate, share, ask for help and not be afraid to fail, we might just achieve all those great things promised by a digital future.”

Nominet is proud to partner with Digital Leaders Week 2018, which runs from 18th to 22nd June. Click through for more details on the Nominet webinars that provide informative and free online learning opportunities during the week.