It’s been an experience
So, how has your digital transformation been? If your organisation wasn’t digital before lockdown do you think you are now? With lockdown being eased and more flexible work arrangements you are thinking more medium term. What areas should we be looking into now that the tactical actions have been taken?
What you do now may be a precursor, and set the direction, for how you operate in the future, dare I say in the “new abnormal”. How do you take advantage of the changes in working practices engendered by remote working and physical distancing? Can you utilise digital technology to create innovations in your processes, supply chain or stakeholder engagements?
This will largely come down to the leadership and board’s confidence in making decisions on what technology and which roads to follow. This will only come if the board has or can access technology expertise. Tech-savvy directors and non-execs can help the company board understand and oversee tech-driven initiatives and opportunities, over and above the usual IT activity of “keeping the lights on”.
Board level technology expertise
So, what can a chair or Chief Exec do if they lack that technology expertise?
Firstly, all modern company boards should aspire to having a good level of technology expertise, it is shown time and again that without this capability companies perform less well and open themselves up to increased risk from cyber threats or technology failure.
Boards can dedicate one or more seats to technologists, such as a current or former CIO. Or, alternatively (or, as well as) an increasing number of boards are hiring external consultants to advise them on tech on an ongoing basis.
Second, evaluate whether the board or a specific committee of the board will own IT oversight and whether the appropriate resources are available. Some organisations delegate IT oversight to the audit or risk committee, largely because of the importance of cybersecurity and cyber risk. Others form separate IT committees, depending on the size of their organisation.
Utilising technology as a tool for innovation can help directors close the confidence gap. Effective use of IT usually occurs if it is planned with focus and a well-executed plan. Considering IT as part of the company’s overall strategy also better allows the board to recognise the potential benefits of newer technologies and the impact they could have on the bottom line.
Boards with a proactive approach to technology will have an advantage over those that maintain a purely defensive position. This approach works when the CIO/IT Director is involved in board meetings on a proactive and ongoing basis, and the board shows an interest in new technology. The burden is on the CIO to make the case for, but It takes a combined approach with the board members to shift their mindset away from IT being seen as more than just cyber and risk management, and it’s more than a cost centre.
A more proactive approach to technology does not necessarily reduce a board’s concern about security and privacy, but it can provide additional space for technology conversations about technology-driven business opportunities and digital transformation.
Moving on to the medium term
So, with the board set up and tech-savvy, here are some of the areas that technology may be able to create value and growth for organisations in the medium term during Covid-19 recovery.
The board will be asking for frequent communications with management on the impact the crisis has had on operations and the execution of strategic initiatives. Additional discussions will be needed in light of current circumstances, changes to capital investment strategies, supply chain issues, workforce planning and cost reduction efforts.
Investing in the development of online dashboards, if not already in existence, will help with the real-time needs for updates that can be shared with directors and leadership teams alike, and with everyone looking at the same numbers, build on a one team approach.
- Supply chain
Supply chains will continue to be disrupted, and there is sense in looking locally to fulfil demand. Many companies will be operating in triage mode, and the ability to balance supply with demand may be impacted for months to come.
Boards should provide oversight for ensuring the company is proactively managing relationships with key suppliers and customers. Again, technology can assist here by ensuring there are good communication links to stakeholders, and directors may want to reach out to their peers in the supplier/customer network.
In the medium term, directors should be asking for the supply chain risk assessments and scenario modelling results. Boards should also be looking into whether increasing workflow automation could mitigate future risk and if the supply chain operating model needs to be revisited.
- Financial reporting
As business continuity challenges escalate, companies may experience issues with “closing their books” on a timely basis. Companies finance teams may be operating now in business continuity mode, processes that are not designed for lengthy operation.
If not already done so, now might be the time to look at automation of some of these back-office processes using robotic process automation, thus improving productivity both in the short term while working remotely and longer term this may prove to be an improved approach.
- Leading in a crisis
Mission and value statements alone do not create a company culture. Directors will want to ensure that they portray the right tone, especially as there are changes in the operation of the business with working from home practices in place. Issues that are formally raised to board level will require investigations to be carried out virtually, so consider how this will be achieved.
Communicating virtually can be a significant barrier to establishing and maintaining relationships with geographically dispersed board members. Tone of voice, facial expressions and environmental context often contribute a great deal of meaning to your speech, and these factors will almost always be absent in your communications with remote board members and employees. The use of web conferencing should be encouraged as much as possible, and is proving effective
- Employee well-being
Directors can be using the vital links you now have with employees through video conferencing (Zoom, GoToMeeting, and Teams) and social chat applications (Slack, Facebook, etc) to check on your employees’ wellbeing. Any methods need to be simple, authentic, and timely, and often.
This can also be true for non-execs. Use the excuse of lockdown to improve and enhance your interactions with senior staff members through chat rooms, to keep your finger on the pulse of the organisation you are leading. Not only that but make it two-way. Ask how your senior team are doing, show you care about them and their needs are being met from a holistic perspective.
There is an opportunity to use technology to advantage as lockdown eases and a new mode of operation comes into play. These opportunities can help to involve the whole entire board of directors in important discussions. Using the right technology will allow you to achieve more personal contact through the use of web conferencing and collaboration tools that are relatively easy to set up. Involving the whole board in conference calls and virtual meetings helps to bring a sense of camaraderie and shared problem solving as we navigate through this crisis.
As technologies continue to evolve, board directors will likely face more IT oversight responsibilities. Therefore, boards need to have a plan on how to address increasing disruption from technology, whilst delivering internal process improvements and digital change. The increase of technology capability by appointing technologists with depth of knowledge, and at the same time developing good IT governance enables directors to bridge the IT confidence gap.
Ian Webb is a technology and business consultant, board advisor, and CTO at Onogo.com