As anyone reading my blog will know, I am currently on a mission to help boards understand and manage artificial intelligence and its rapid impact on our business world. One of the issues is that most people on boards tend to be older and happy to admit ‘I don’t do technology’. Here I look at the issues starting to hit boards – and some innovative ways to help them get into technology!

 © Wisconsinart | - Funny Business People, Board Of Directors, Boss Photo

© Wisconsinart | – Funny Business People, Board Of Directors, Boss Photo

This is a serious issue for business because those running our companies don’t really understand the impact of what is going on at grass roots. They may sign off investments to automate half their accounts department, customer service tills and shelf re-stocking – but who is looking at the big picture? The impact on future jobs, profitability structures, the customer service model? (I wrote this blog about the business connection – or lack of it – between board and automated activities)

Kids til

I think we have to get boards more tech-savvy and comfortable with technology – and one of the ways is to help directors innovate differently. We need to get away from the idea innovators are either the wild-eyed scientist or the slightly geeky youth – think Einstein and the founders of Facebook.

I spoke recently at Eversheds’ General Counsel Forum, to one hundred or so lawyers – perhaps not the sort of group you would expect to be at the leading edge of innovation. Yet in the Q&A after my talk, I was really impressed at some of the ideas coming through and thought I would like to share them wider.

Smart idea 1 – The shadow senior leadership team

We talked about the need to get the input of young people into a senior team. This is not an easy thing to do and few organisations have been successful in doing it.

These digital natives, those people who were born after the start of the Internet and mobile revolution, are not very senior in most organisations. The senior people, and the board in particular, tend to be at best digital immigrants, and some are just digital tourists (“we use FaceTime to talk to the grandchildren”) and one or two are Luddites.

Even if they realise how important it is to understand the next generation of innovators they struggle to have honest conversations with people who are layers down the organisation.

So I was very impressed when one of the senior lawyers I spoke to explained to me what they are doing to try to get input and I thought it was a great idea worth sharing.

They have a senior leadership team, the SLT, which runs the business. In order to get input from several layers down the organisation they have set up a “shadow” SLT. The shadow SLT is made up of junior people, they meet at the same intervals as the main SLT and by and large they have the same agenda. They debate the issues and come to conclusions of their own. One of the shadow SLT sits as their representative on the main SLT and the chairman of the SLT makes sure that their representative has an equal voice and that their views are taken seriously. In the beginning the process was difficult but it has now become the way they manage.

Smart idea 2 – Reverse mentoring

One of the world’s leading technology companies did something equally innovative with reverse mentoring – senior people were given a young mentor to help them with social media. The company realised the importance of their senior people being really comfortable with using social media to communicate within the company, but discovered that even people who were comfortable with advanced technology found that anything more than a corporate e-mail was a real stretch.

So their mentors were there to help them communicate in a way that was appealing and acceptable to the more than half of the company who were digital natives and had given up e-mail as a very old fashioned tool.

What could you do?

Office workers

1. The shadow SLT

Could you implement something like this? It takes a lot of courage. You have to

  • Find a team of junior people who are willing to give this a try
  • Make sure they have the time and the right briefing to be able to discuss the issue properly
  • Take their answers seriously and allow them equal weight with the opinions of the senior team. For this idea to work this will be the most challenging aspect of this idea and requires a skilled and understanding chairman of the senior team

2. Reverse mentoring

This works really well in companies where the average employee age is young (technology companies, media companies) and the senior team is not so young. Again you have to take your mentor seriously

3. Seeking out innovation

Lots of companies have processes for technical innovation, but both the examples I have used are not about technology but about the thoughtful application of a process. Where are the places where your senior team could do with more input and how might you find it?


4. The Orangutan!

In an earlier blog l looked at Tim Harford’s suggestion that Orangutan’s will probably have as much success predicting the future as most economists. While not seriously suggesting you have an Orangutan on your board, I did look at a number of ways that boards could improve their predictions of the future – and of course these are relevant in this argument about getting technology-savvy.

I am researching and writing a white paper on how corporates should be managing intelligent automation. I would love to include other ideas – and happy to credit you or your company if they are included (and you would like it!).