Filling the digital knowledge gap

binary_digitsSince writing my last article, Boards need to get up to speed with digital, in which I highlighted the need for boards to gain a better understanding of what it means to be a digital business, and how technology can enable this, I have seen further evidence of the low level of awareness that boards have in this area.

In my original article I used the results of a survey by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) to explain that, whilst the vast majority of boards acknowledge the importance of IT in creating shareholder value and had increased the time they spend on monitoring IT risks and strategy as a result, their awareness and understanding of the broader subject of digital business was worryingly low. For example, only a quarter of directors responding to the PwC survey said they knew anything about how their competitors were using emerging technologies. Digital is more than just your own organisation’s IT systems, it is about the technology used by your competitors, customers, partners and society in general. So for only one in four directors to know anything at all about how their competitors are using new technology is simply too low in a digital world.

At a recent conference for Chief Information Officers, the event’s host asked for a show of hands to assess how many attendees worked at organisations where the whole executive team had a good understanding of digital. Out of around 100 people in the room, less than 10 hands went up. A couple of days later I gave a presentation at the Institute of Company Secretaries and Administrators on Technology and the Board. I talked about the importance of board awareness and leadership in a digital business and used the PwC results to demonstrate the current low level of understanding amongst most boards. Many of the audience nodded in agreement to these points and a number of attendees approached me afterwards to confirm that this was consistent with their own experience.

On a similar subject, Gartner has just released some research that highlights the need for companies to attract people with digital skills in order to remain competitive. The survey of 151 business leaders involved in recruiting digital talent found that failure to attract the right people will cause organisations to ‘lose competitive ranking by 2017’. The need for digital understanding and experience starts right at the top of the business; the board itself must have a good working knowledge of the digital world. Otherwise how else can they provide leadership and direction to the people they recruit?

The PwC survey found that three quarters of respondents said that it is important to add directors with technology or digital media experience while 35% had used external consultants on either a project-specific or continuous basis to advise on technology matters. Both are valid ways of filling the board’s digital knowledge gap although the former does depend on there being a vacancy at director level to which a tech-savvy executive can be appointed. And using consultants on a project-specific basis may not provide the holistic view needed for digital business and also runs the risk of knowledge being taken out of the business by the consultant at the end of the project.

Retained advisers will provide a level of continuity although they are still not a substitute for having digital knowledge within the board itself and they may not necessarily be privy to all of the sensitive or confidential information about the organisation that may have a bearing on the advice they provide.

Appointing one or more non-exec directors with digital experience is an alternative worth exploring for all businesses. As well as providing continuity and knowledge at board level it also overcomes any issue with sensitive or confidential information. Appointing a non-exec who has previously held executive or leadership positions in relevant disciplines, organisations and markets will also provide the ‘real-world’ experience and insights that some advisers may lack. In fact given the importance of digital, non-execs with the right experience will offer valuable guidance, advice and challenge whether or not the board is tech- and digital-savvy.

In the long-run, however, each board member must develop a good understanding and awareness of digital. To be able to set business strategy in a digital world and to provide the required leadership and direction on an ongoing basis, directors must know what technology can do and how it is being used inside and outside their organisations. Consultants, advisers and non-execs can all play a part in educating board members. But directors also have to take responsibility for their own development and for filling their personal digital knowledge gap. Failure to do so may limit their future career opportunities as more organisations are likely to specify digital experience as a prerequisite for board level roles.

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  1. […] means to be a digital business, and how technology can enable their digital transformation. And in Filling the digital knowledge gap I explained the steps that CEOs could take to address the shortfall in their board’s digital […]

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