Why you don’t need an IT expert on your board

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Why you don’t need an IT expert on your board

[Blog post] Three critical skills for navigating the digital age.

There has been something of a crusade amongst the business community to recruit IT experts to boards and top executive positions as an insurance policy while navigating new, turbulent, digital waters.

But it is by no means enough to simply appoint directors with a tech background. This knee-jerk reaction requires more examination and a more nuanced approach than grabbing the nearest CIO.

IT-savvy board appointments became fashionable several years back, when it first became clear that there was a skills gap at the top of many big enterprises. The number of technology project failures was on the rise and expensive IT promises were rarely fulfilled.

But then the paradigm shifted.

IT as a business enabler was pushed down the list of priorities, while the focus shifted to digital disruption.

But big business still seems to struggle to understand the difference between technology innovation and digital transformation. There remains a tendency to continue to apply the same old IT recipe to a totally different problem.

IT skills for leaders could be a modest palliative, but they are not necessarily the full solution.

Digital disruption is not a philosophical construct anymore, it is here and it is tangible and profound. It is shaking the foundations of several industries today, and as millennials and alphas become customers, these changes will grow deeper and wider.

Nevertheless, to know that the digital disruption is here and to know how to react to it are two very different things.

While some organisations have devised innovative new approaches, for most this represents a challenge beyond their internal cultural capabilities. Inertia and the ‘industrial’ way of operating are unconscious obstacles in the way of their evolution.

So if straight IT skills are not the answer, what kind of background should businesses be looking to add to their boardroom?

I have distilled them down to three critical capabilities that are present in many well-rounded IT leaders, but not by any means all of them.

1. Outer vision

In an age of constant digital disruption, it is necessary for leaders to develop a very sophisticated sense of anticipation. They need to detect and monitor the events at the periphery of business, and quickly connect the dots between emerging tendencies by correlating apparently unimportant events.

It is necessary to remain curious and alert, challenging prevailing views and, while the path is still ambiguous, push forward with a transformational agenda.

2. Exponential thinking

We are experiencing this digital change as a rapid succession of waves. As technology changes are absorbed, matured, and recombined, new waves keep on coming.

Organisations will face change at a pace we have never seen before. Our old ways of developing strategies will face up against severe limitations, since shaping strategy based on what we know about the past assumes a linear future, and that line will be broken.

Long range forecasts about technology and social change are nearly always wrong.

In the next 50 years, we won’t experience 50 years of progress according to our past scale - we may well experience 5000 years’ worth. Looking at the future through an exponential lens opens up a completely different perspective.

3. Intuition for enterprise architecture 

Jeanne Ross, Peter Weill and David Robertson argued back in 2006 that when it comes to executing a strategy, your enterprise architecture may matter far more than the strategy itself.

This principle has never been more true that it is now.

The ultimate digital machine is totally cohesive: digital channels, customer touchpoints, business processes and information repositories must be perfectly integrated.

The big challenge is to have enough enterprise architecture understanding to be aware how all initiatives affect each other, and be aware that a small change in a corner of the organisation won’t necessarily remain isolated to that corner.

To survive and to thrive in the digital era, the recruiting process for boards and top executive roles needs focus on these three skills.

Top transformational IT leaders often master these disciplines, but never confuse IT skills with digital transformational skills.

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William Confalonieri
William Confalonieri, the 2014 CIO of the Year, offers some clarity on IT strategy and bridging the divide between Information Technology and the ‘Digital’ domain.
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