Last month I was invited to speak at The Two Per Cent Club. Instead of just talking, I asked these smart, senior women to look at a serious business problem from the variety of perspectives in that room.
What was the problem? What were their views and most importantly what do they think boards should be doing?
These were women from all types of company, public and private, big and small.
I talked about how technology would impact work as we know it, for white-collar jobs – these are the jobs that we classify now as junior and senior professional jobs and these are the ones that will be dramatically affected by the next wave of automation. This will be the same kind of impact that previous waves of automation had on manual labour or blue collar jobs, forever.
At the end of the talk I harnessed the brain power in the room with round table discussions about what businesses are doing to think ahead and manage these changes – and what they should be doing.
There was little debate around the key premise of my talk – ? Everyone broadly agreed this is something already happening – our challenge is how we manage the impact.
There were three themes that came out of the discussions
1. What management structures will businesses of the future need?
The feeling was that management structures would be far flatter and you would have – and need – more young people in senior positions. (There is a great discussion on how flatter organisations are the future in Jacob Shriar’s blog – I particularly like his connection to how colonies of ants work and the TED talk by Deborah Gordon on the subject. Who could believe the way ants organize their work could be so fascinating!)
Why is it so important to have young people in senior positions? The young are digital natives, they were born with technology, it’s a fundamental part of their lives in the same way as electricity was a part of ours. We all had stories of our children and grandchildren using technology without being taught. They have the skills we will need for the future.
But how do we get those young people into positions of influence?
This is something boards need to be thinking about. I like the idea of one major US technology company who gave all their senior people “technology mentors”. They reversed the traditional mentoring relationship so the young mentors were the ones imparting their skills and experience. This is something that all boards could usefully adopt.
2. What should boards look like in the future?
The Two Per Cent women asked “what should boards look like in the future?”
We’ve already said that you need more young people but what are the other changes? Should the focus be less on governance and more on innovation and technology? It would certainly make board meetings more interesting. (I looked at whether boards can govern innovation in this earlier blog).
Should the composition of boards change so that there are more people who understand how the world is changing and fewer who still operate the old world models?
When boards do their annual evaluation they need to debate if their composition and structure is fit for purpose in a changing world.
I’ve sat on too many boards that have an annual strategy day so they can tick the strategy box. Boards need to think very hard as to whether this is adequate. Technology is breaking down the barriers to entry in so many areas. Look at 3D printing – if every corner shop can print its stock then what happens to its current suppliers. What can boards do?
3. Boards should look at technology impact quarterly
An annual strategy is not enough, technology now moves so fast that any planning process needs to be dynamic and proactive and the board needs to be alive to new possibilities. Boards should be looking at changes in technology that may impact their business quarterly.
These were some of the suggestions that came out of the discussions
- Put the CTO on the board, and take their views seriously
- Every member of the board should be up to speed with new technology. If your board members are still using paper and are frightened of technology then educate them, or get new board members
Have you seen companies that have changed the structure and role of their boards? Is it making a significant difference?