The US Congress’ recent grilling of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg led to a flurry of articles on how the “oldies” asking questions had no idea how Facebook worked or what meaningful questions to ask. Most people stated that the congressmen had zero background in technology, and were asking generic feel good questions that didn’t require incisive answers or meaningful preparation.
Juxtapose this to any large enterprise in the world. Market interactions suggest that less than 5 percent have a technologist on their board of directors. Their high echelon spots are filled with management, finance, or, at best, operational executives. So, how can the board members advise or question their companies around their technology advancement? Can they conceive of or initiate discussions around the enterprise becoming a platform business? (Would they even understand what that means?) How can they critique or support such technology-heavy discussions?
The obvious answer is, they can’t.
Although board members aren’t required to actively build strategy for the company – that is left for the CEO and the team – they are certainly required to intervene when they see the company is losing direction or possibly isn’t doing enough. Because they have no clue about what is happening in the technology world in the digital age, they can’t ask questions around digital strategy. In turn, they can’t be fully effective in their roles. And that can spell doom for the company.
Who’s to Blame?
While some of it falls to the board members, the technologists in the company – such as CIOs and CTOs – must share the blame for not being invited to the board, or at least regular boardroom discussions. They haven’t been able to succinctly explain digital disruption in a business sense that gets the board’s attention. Instead, they primarily focus on cost-centricity or supporting the business in newer initiatives. And they explain minute details around technologies and vendor management, which don’t give the board members the grounding they need (and honestly, aren’t interested in.)
What Should Technologists Do?
In order to provide boards with what they really need to know, technologists need to up their game and focus on the business impact of technologies, not just the business case.
First and foremost, they need to change their cost center mindset…something that’s been said, attempted, and failed in the past. However, in today’s environment, with digital technologies transforming, enhancing, and destroying businesses, IT has a real chance to become a force to reckon with. It needs to enhance its self-perception and treat itself as a business driver, not a support center. Though running the business activities may continue to take most of IT team members’ time, IT leaders must proactively suggest and address the change-and-transform activities.
Technologists will also be well-served by investing time in learning “story telling.” Board members don’t have the time, patience, or need to understand a long-winded argument. They are interested in learning the story behind the argument, and how it helps the business. Technologists who learn to use stories will be much more adept at driving their point home. This will ensure that the board has a relook at technologists’ role, and sooner than later invite them to join the board.
What Should Enterprises Do?
A board of directors’ role continues to be steering a company in the right direction. However, the days of developing a long-term strategy and intervening at exception are truly over. In the digital age, enterprises need iterative and evolutionary strategies that are dynamic and flexible enough to both respond to changing market dynamics and create newer dynamics.
For this to happen, company management needs to move beyond getting members of the “old boy’s school club” on their board. It must challenge the culture of celebrating technology ignorance. And it must vigorously look for gaps in current members’ understanding of technology disruption, and whether or not they are capable of deliberating technology disruption and how the company can harness it for competitive advantage.
Board members should be selected – indeed retained – only if they truly understand the business issues in today’s digital age. If they don’t, the enterprise they represent is doomed.