Decision-making is increasingly distributed throughout organisations to enable people to respond rapidly to change. More work is done by global teams, which are assembled for a single project and then disbanded. Collaboration within these often geographically diverse groups is occurring mainly through digital rather than face-to-face interaction.
With these trends set to continue, an article in Harvard Business Review ("Leadership's Online Labs, April 2008) asks, "What on earth will leadership look like in such a world?" - and proposes that we can find some answers by looking at leadership in online games. The article suggests that games like World of Warcraft and Everquest provide game leaders with similar challenges to those faced by leaders in the real world. Indeed, half of a sample of employees who had led business teams and had played online games said that game playing had improved their real-world leadership capabilities. Some findings of this IBM-commissioned research are that, in online games:
- leadership roles are often temporary: leadership is a task that is taken up and put down by many people, as well as being a role that a small number of people take on full time. The result is that individuals who'd never expect to be identified as high potentials in the real world take on significant leadership roles in games - suggesting that organisations may be missing opportunities to benefit from latent leadership talent present in the organisation.
- trial and error leading to failure seen not as a career killer but a frequent and necessary antecedent to success. Rapid decision making using large amounts of instantly available but incomplete data is followed by repeated re-evaluation of the decisions as new data arrives. Frequent risk taking allows players to practice the art of weighing odds in uncertain environments, an increasingly important leadership skill - suggesting that organisations could help develop leaders by exposing them to the kinds of contained risks found in online games.
- immediate and predictable non-monetary incentives (since, as online games have shown, people are motivated by virtual gains and losses, even if these can't be exchanged for cash)
- hypertransparency of information (eg real-time statistics on group and individual performance available to everyone, not just leaders).