If only sauntering into a board meeting with the latest tablet was enough to make you au fait with the technology revolutionising the business world. To really help bridge the knowledge gap, a growing number of companies are recruiting ‘digital natives’ or have created ‘shadow boards’ and ‘reverse mentoring’ programmes, whereby those who lack seniority but understand digital can teach executives what they need to know.

Debbie Hewitt, Non-executive Chairman of clothing retailer Moss Bros, says: “I’ve seen digital natives appointed and also shadow boards used as a way to supplement a board’s digital skills. Both can work and provide a way of getting all directors up-to-speed on the trends and also in thinking differently about how a business might develop.”

It makes sense to bring in true advocates for harnessing data and using social media. Cath Keers, Non-executive Director for telecommunications concern Telefónica O2 Europe and Home Retail Group, comments: “I would be in favour of anything that would help boards understand the consumers and businesses they serve, whether that’s through using digital natives, shadow boards or just getting people to use it more and putting them in situations where they’re with customers, so they can see how they use it.”

Be that as it may, there is a danger that in some companies these measures could result in a deferral of responsibility, confirming prejudices within the minds of directors that ‘this is just for kids’, and therefore excusing them from their duty to get to grips with the impact of new technology. Peter Horrocks, Director of BBC Global News and World Service, comments: “If boards aren’t fully grasping everything digital, it’s not necessarily a generational issue. I’m in my mid-50s and I’m a digital enthusiast, so I think it’s more about attitude and people’s preparedness to change.”

Bill Payne, General Manager of Customer Experience and Industries for IBM, regards the lack of understanding on many British boards as disturbing when it comes to implementing a multichannel strategy. “Shadow boards, digital natives – for me, these are somewhat ridiculous and obscure distractions,” he says. “It’s another example of leaders living in denial about why they have to be the agents of change. It’s not a generational thing – it’s a vision thing.”

The goal is to link up bricks and mortar, web, mobile, contact centre and social customer contact. If driving such integration is not a boardroom issue, it’s hard to know what is given that it requires investment and a shift in strategy. Peter comments: “It’s slightly unrealistic to say that you could have an alternative management structure. There should always be clear, single accountability at the top of organisations. And for digital to be truly successful it’s got to be integrated into the existing business.”

By way of example, Simon Johnson, Group Managing Director for UK & International at publisher HarperCollins, has recruited individuals who can crunch data around pricing of the company’s e-book catalogue. “I now have a team of PhD mathematicians who put code together, manage big data sets and are engaged with the board – [who] understand the context of the data – and they use that to provide recommendations on how we should price our catalogue on a real-time basis,” he says, adding that so far the results have been powerful but a whole lot more can be done in this area.

Sure, initiatives like shadow boards and reverse mentoring won’t do any harm, but they have to be complementing a more fundamental involvement from directors. According to Jason Keane, CEO of video service delivery company Saffron Digital, “you need a digital tsar who not only understands the digital channel but also the existing channels and where the business today is very successful”.

Without passion, know-how and engagement, a company is going to struggle. Besides, it’s not enough anymore to just have a multichannel presence – that ship sailed long ago. “The skill comes in knowing how to get a return on investment from digital,” says Jason.

For the CEO and chairman, the challenge is to decide exactly how to drive the agenda. It’s a case of looking at the board and themselves to see if everyone is collectively prepared to adapt and become natives in the digital landscape.

If not, then it’s time to look for replacements.

I hope to see you soon.


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