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A Public Leader’s Challenge: Technology as an Organizational Core Competency

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Tricia S. Nolfi
June 27, 2019


Throughout the pages of PA Times, much has been written about the benefits of developing core competencies in order to be a responsive organization. As we move past the digital era and into the post-digital era, a focus on technological competencies is critical for public organization success.

A Deloitte Consulting report points to technology trends impacting public organizations ranging from the use of augmented and virtual reality to digitized central operations to a “no-collar” workforce. This has pressed leaders to leverage new and emerging technologies to solve public problems and enhance organizational operations. Additionally, those they lead—public employees—are expected to engage with technology regularly to meet the publics’ demands.

Both Carl Ward and Tim Dodd note that as more citizens rely on personal devices to manage personal and professional needs, they also want to use those devices to interact with governments and access services. This has pushed organizations to integrate digital communications, artificial intelligence, and cloud-based solutions to serve the public in addition to using technologies such as drones, autonomous robots and biometrics to support core operations.  Because of this shift in work, the challenge for the public leader is to not only understand digital solutions that are available but also to integrate them seamlessly into a complex organization with a workforce that has technical capabilities.

The Growing Need for Tech Competencies

As noted by Sean Ziller, consultant with Conduent State and Local Solutions, some public leaders may look to the shifting technological landscape with unease, possessing reasonable concerns that the well-known processes behind their own work will be impacted. They are called upon to be nimble in their ability to assess and adapt to new technologies and to have the insight to adjust an organization’s ecosystem to support new advances. This calls attention to the need for leaders to expand their own knowledge and skills—as well as the organization as a whole—to meet these expectations.

Brent Ruben in his book, What Leaders Know and Do, notes that effective leaders possess analytic, personal, communication, organizational and positional capabilities. Embedded within these are skills and abilities related to being a post digital-era leader. For example, effective analytical competencies require the ability to analyze technologies and assess their benefits and pitfalls. Public leaders who display technological competencies have credibility. They garner respect from citizens, elected officials and colleagues due to their knowledge of issues and problems in the public sector and their ability to find digital solutions.

Signaling the importance of technical competency, many public organizations like the USDA consider technology management to be a core leadership competency. A technically-competent leader keeps up-to-date on new developments, makes effective use of technology to achieve results, and ensures access to and security of technology systems. These capabilities ensure that leaders are providing a comprehensive vision for the organization and are leading a workforce that is responsive to rapid changes. Today’s public leaders are required to recognize that technology creates new opportunities but also presents new challenges as organizations are still fashioned for the workforce of the past. Being creative and adaptable is key to moving an organization past traditions so that it can be responsive to the public’s demands.

Integrating Tech Competencies into the Organization

With the accelerated pace of digital integration into the public workplace, leaders need to think more broadly about organizational competencies and not just employee competencies. Organizational competencies are the collective employee skills that an organization must have in order to achieve its plans. Leveraging technology needs to be a core competency of public organizations and positioned as a strategic strength. This requires leaders to reframe their own mindset from using technology in the workplace to being a digital leader of a public organization.

Focusing on technology as an organizational competency can be accomplished through the following:

  • As noted by Iberkis Faltas, strive to have an organization with a more agile mindset that is open to experimentation, decentralization and new ways of working.
  • Facilitate a culture for continuous organizational learning which includes different ways of training and development using technology
  • Focus on the development of core competencies that make a significant contribution to addressing the public’s needs in the delivery of programs and services.
  • Assess employees’ digital capabilities and determine critical knowledge, skills and abilities that need to be developed or enhanced.
  • Rethink performance expectations for employees and implement a competency model that promotes the development of technology-related skills.
  • Recruit and hire individuals with digital capabilities rather than recruiting for a workforce of years past where bureaucratic and silo mentalities persist.

It’s important to note that organizational competencies are more than strategic goals. They provide the tools so that departments, units, and individuals can contribute to the organization’s vision by drawing upon the capabilities required. As leaders develop organizational competencies, they should develop a communication plan to inform the workforce about the how and why the competencies were developed and how they align to the mission, vision and values of the organization. Doing so will ensure that the organization and its employees are salient in the post-digital era.


Author: Tricia S. Nolfi, is Program Director and Assistant Professor II of the MA Organizational Leadership Program at Rider University. She may be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @TriciaNolfi

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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