CEO: is your board up to speed with digital?

board room with red seatsDigital transformation presents many challenges. It spans the entire organisation and requires businesses to rethink their business models, products and services. It may even involve disrupting an existing and healthy revenue stream to create a new, digitally-enabled source of income that is more sustainable in the long-term.

Technology is key to digital; it is both the enabler and the driver of digital business. To succeed in digital you need a high performance IT capability; you need the right type of CIO, the right type of IT function and the right platform to be a sustainable digital business. And you also need the right approach and knowledge at both board level and across the wider organisation.

The transformation to a digital business must start with a vision. However, what is needed is not a digital vision, but a vision for the organisation in the digital age. That may sound like semantics but it is an important distinction. Digital is not an add-on to the business; it encompasses the whole organisation and beyond. The vision for digital transformation is, therefore, the vision for the organisation, it defines the type of business it needs to become to thrive in the digital age.

And that vision must be created, understood and shared by the entire board. And the board must also provide the leadership and direction both during the initial transformation and on an ongoing basis to ensure the business continues to adapt and develop to the fast-paced markets that digital creates.

Front cover advertThis is the last in a series of four articles that provide advice and guidance to CEOs and boards to help them assess whether they have the right IT foundations in place to be a successful digital business. The articles are based on my book, Disrupt IT, which defines a new model for IT that meets the needs of the digital business. The first article, CEO: do you have the right CIO for digital, covered the CIO role whilst the second article, CEO: is your IT function fit for digital, provides CEOs with guidance on assessing their IT function. The third article, CEO: can your IT platform cope with digital provides CEOs with advice on how to assess whether the organisation’s existing systems and infrastructure can support its digital ambitions.

This article provides CEOs with guidelines they can use to assess whether they have a board that is capable of leading a digital business. Being a board member in the digital age requires different skills, knowledge and experience than has traditionally been required. To provide the vision and leadership required to create a digital business and to ensure that business survives and grows in dynamic markets that are driven by customers, requires a board that truly gets digital.

CEOs who are concerned whether they have the right type of board for digital should ask themselves the following three questions:

  1. Is the board comfortable talking about technology? It is no longer acceptable for a senior executive to be a self-confessed technophobe or Luddite. In a digital business every member of the senior team must be able to contribute to discussions about technology and they must also understand and be able to articulate the importance of technology to the organisation. This does not mean they need to be deeply technical or understand how the technology works. But they do need to understand its capability and how it can be applied. It is the same level of understanding that the board should have about the company’s financial accounts. Every board member should be comfortable talking about the accounts; they should be able to discuss the contents, understand the relationship between the P&L and the balance sheet, spot potential issues and debate possible solutions. But they are not expected to know all of the accounting standards or the detailed policies and processes that sit behind the preparation of the accounts – that is the job of the CFO and the Finance department. In board level discussions about the accounts the CFO acts as the subject matter expert, advising, guiding and leading their colleagues but they cannot be the only person that understands the numbers or what they are saying about the health of the organisation. The same applies to technology. The whole executive team should be capable of discussing their company’s IT investments, strategy and opportunities under the guidance and leadership of the CIO, who by definition should be a member of that team.
  2. Does the board understand digital? Technology is key to the digital business. But having a board that is comfortable talking about technology matters is just the starting point as there is also a lot more to being a digital business than technology. Digital is about transforming the entire organisation, it is about creating new business models, products and services, generating new revenue streams, and creating a unique customer experience. And this may involve collaborating with other partners, suppliers and even customers to create new offerings and generate value for all parties. For example, boards need to understand what it takes to create and manage ongoing digital services that generate value for the business and the customer beyond the initial transaction. This is where the real customer experience and value lies. Digital businesses take an outside-in view of their business – they look at the business from the customer’s perspective and reinvent what they do and how they do it. They then apply the right technology to achieve the transformation.  If your board thinks digital is just a technology project, or it is about your organisation’s website or social media activity then it is not a board that gets digital.
  3. Is there a digital culture at board level? Being a digital business means being a joined-up business. Digital does not stop at functional boundaries; it flows through the organisation to create integrated offerings and a seamless customer experience. Board members need to work together to identify and exploit opportunities in the digital world. Much has been written about the need for the organisation’s CIO and CMO to work together to ensure digital success. The same applies to all members of the C-suite as the next game-changing idea could come from any part of the organisation and through a previously untried combination of products, services, partners, suppliers, systems and/or data. The C-suite needs to have a collaborative culture; they need to be comfortable working together across functional and organisational boundaries. Digital markets move quickly, they are more dynamic than traditional markets and they can be disrupted more easily. To survive and succeed in the digital world, businesses need to be agile; they need to be able to respond quickly and easily to changing market conditions, customer preferences or competitor activity. The board of a digital business therefore needs to be capable of making quick decisions perhaps on minimal or imperfect information. And they also need to be prepared to take risks, try new things, test ideas and commission pilots in order to thrive in the digital world.

Whilst aimed primarily at the board, these principles also apply to the wider organisation. Increasingly managers and staff from all areas of the business need to be comfortable talking about technology, understand what digital really means and have the right culture for digital. The leading digital businesses exhibit strong collaborative skills, they are agile with the ability to make quick decisions, and they are willing to try new things in order to get ahead. These characteristics need to run through your organisation if it is to be a successful digital business.

But it starts at the top; the board sets the tone and direction for the rest of the business to follow. If the board is not up to speed with digital then it is very unlikely that the rest of the organisation will be either. But if you do have a board that gets digital then you are well placed to succeed in the digital age.

Disrupt IT is available from Amazon in print and Kindle formats. Country links are listed below: UKUSAustraliaBrazilCanadaFranceGermanyIndiaItalyMexicoJapanSpain

If your organisation wants to improve its board’s awareness and understanding of digital, or if it is looking for an adviser that can provide the board with assurance, oversight and guidance on technology and digital initiatives then please contact me or visit my website, axin.co.uk.

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