Staying relevant in a digital world
This piece was originally published on the Odgers Connect website on December 13, 2017.
In-between consulting to boards of large companies on the need for digital transformation, I’ve developed a side career as a professional public speaker. This year, talks have taken me to Tehran, Hong Kong, London and Cairo.
The most frequently requested talk is one on Digital Disruption. What surprised me is that no matter what country or culture I am in, the issues surrounding new digital technologies and the new ways of working are keeping every executive awake.
Towards the end of my talk after making a case that disruption is real, I show the chart below, and I leave it on the screen for several minutes. It has become my most photographed slide (see below), as the way I explain this mix of technologies, terminologies and platforms is that each of these are either in-play or will contribute to digital disruption within 2 years.
I implore those in the audience (and those reading this article) that if any of these terms are not familiar, then as a minimum they should go to Wikipedia and see what they mean, then take the time to understand how these will impact your industry and in turn your company. Technology is moving so quickly, and it is therefore very important to stay up to date with new digital terminology and the corresponding impact.
One of the terms on the slide below is Blockchain — most often associated with Bitcoin and cryptocurrency, and “Initial Coin Offerings” or ICOs. If, however I explained that Blockchain is a distributed ledger, then this paints the technology in a way that makes it more accessible.
If your business relies on a ledger to keep track of documents, currency, inventory or any number of components in your supply chain, then blockchain may be a technology that can improve your business, or perhaps ensure it doesn’t become disrupted as a result of a more agile competitor deploying it.
The challenge for many executives, is how do they keep up to date with everything that is happening in the digital space, while filtering out what is noise, and what is relevant.
Personally, I read widely including the UK national and business publications, and I use my social media feeds from LinkedIn and Twitter as a de-facto news feed, as the people I follow and interact on these platforms are surfacing trends and techniques that I need to know about. I also read outside of my field of expertise to ensure I have a broad understanding of the issues affecting major industries.
At a recent talk in London delivered to a room full of mutual and co-operative insurers, I spoke about both the risks and opportunities from digital disruption seen through an insurance lens. I was only able to be relevant for this industry by understanding the challenges facing them, and then being a “digital translator” and explaining what they needed to do as an industry.
Executives have a role to play in staying current, while not necessarily being an expert in the field of digital. My mantra has become “in order to get digital, you need to be digital”. By this I mean you need to play with the technology and embrace what it can, or cannot do.
If we assume that digital and social media is merely a new language, then we need to engage and learn enough of this new language to understand and be understood. Simple steps you can take might be to join Twitter if you aren’t already using it, and watch how people use this platform to communicate and promote new concepts.
One of the other acronyms on my slide is 2FA which stands for “2 factor authentication”. Those who have a banking token to access their personal or business accounts will be familiar with the concept, if not the name.
The need to take security seriously on our personal accounts such as Gmail and LinkedIn can be the start of an education around cyber security.
The need for digital diversity
One other topic I frequently cover is the need for digital diversity on boards. I propose that two digital non-executive directors are appointed to allow the board’s business and deliberations to always be seen through a digital lens. In London I know of around 100 Digital NEDs that have board experience and importantly speak “fluent digital”.
A secondary benefit of a digitally savvy board is that they can help get the management team up to speed with the terms on my slide below.
Keeping the regulators up to date
Digital disruption is happening at a speed far in excess of what regulators can cope with.
When I speak to regulated industries such as finance, insurance and pharmaceuticals, I implore them to be the ones leading the education of regulators about this new digital world rather than being led. In multiple industries I have seen the regulators or the government mandate something (such as open banking standards in the UK and Australia) that the banks were never considering, while their agile “FinTech” competitors were rubbing their hands with glee.
Getting yourself ahead of the digital curve not only makes you fit to play with the more agile incumbents who are developing faster than you can, you also clear a path for the regulators to ensure the rules are fair for the incumbents as well as new entrants.
With this new digital world, it is no longer about being first, it is about transforming your business model, internal processes and culture to be digitally fit for whatever comes next. In turn, you as leader need to be the one leaning forward, and being inquisitive when digital is mentioned, not looking away saying “it won’t happen to us”, because the reality it will.
My hope is the next website you access after reading this article is one that explains the words on the chart below — taking the next step of your journey to be more digitally literate.