Digital leadership: how should digital be represented at board level?

DARPA_Big_DataBy Sarah Vick, Managing Director, Reading Room

How can leaders ensure digital is a strategic strength? In a Reading Room roundtable event, we discussed the shift from ‘doing’ digital to ‘being’ digital and the challenges this poses.

Being at the forefront of digital is central to operations, corporate strategy, customer experience and communications. But should this responsibility sit under the remit of a traditional board-level director, in the form of a Chief Digital Officer? Or should every senior executive be digitally savvy? In both cases, what does the board need to know and do to ensure that digital is a strategic strength of the business?

From ‘doing’ digital to ‘being’ digital

In our roundtable event we discussed the shift from ‘doing’ digital to ‘being’ digital and the challenges this poses for both boards and people working in digital roles within organisations.

We concluded that either digital changes you as an organisation or you choose to actively manage your digital transformation. Those organisations that make a decision to manage their transformation and learn from doing so are more likely to be successful in the future. This takes bravery; the people on boards are no longer the experts. If they are brave enough to admit that they need to learn in order to change,  that’s the best first step to take.

The rate of change that digital technology has brought about means boards are being challenged to make ever faster decisions, and to reconsider the benefit of long-term planning. Is it really possible to plan five years in advance? Won’t the world as we know it have completely changed again in that time frame? Boards operating in highly regulated or governance-heavy environments have additional hurdles to jump in a fast-paced environment.

Experimentation in order to build a business case for change

It was clear in our discussions that boards and directors needed to be able to make decisions based on business cases that explained the impact digital initiatives would have on an organisation.

Often these business cases will propose an initial spend in order to test a certain proposition. However being awarded budget (even minimal) to test and experiment is often difficult to achieve. At Reading Room, we have found that organisations who are willing to test ideas out, find it easier to innovate and, as a result, are often ahead of their competitors or the first to market.

Directors need to understand that organisations have to change and that digital is a key aspect in bringing about change. At the same time, having an understanding of the benefits of testing ideas out in order to make longer term strategic decisions is an important skill to have at board level and something organisations should advocate.

Becoming a joined up digital organisation

‘Digital’ people within an organisation are often those who are willing to shine a torch on problem areas. They are both the disrupters and the teachers; causing those around them to love them and be afraid of them in equal measure.

One area where the torch gets shined is on the myriad of internal systems that aren’t joined up and don’t allow data to flow from one to another. This topic is often raised at board level, but because the projects associated with joining systems up often do not result in immediate results or a difference in the front-end user experience, they risk getting passed over for ‘shinier’ activities.

It is important that people reporting into boards are able to demonstrate the efficiencies that can be made from allowing systems to talk to each other. Again, being able to undertake proof of concept or short-run experimental projects can often help to build a business case.

Digital knowledge can inform strategic planning

Not all board positions are occupied by digitally savvy people, yet the board is expected to make decisions in a world that is changing faster and faster because of the impact of digital. There is a need for more education at board level to help organisations to make better strategic decisions in relation to digital. Another tip is to avoid board discussions where the board gets pulled into the detail of plans, which is not a good use of their time.

Boards need to be strategic and hold the vision for the future of the organisation. They need to have a holistic approach and to understand how core areas such as data and content fit into their overall vision. Having a common understanding and a clear vision for how digital fits into the organisational strategy is a place where boards should strive to get to.

Do we need Chief Digital Officers?

In our discussions we concluded that at this point in time it was useful to have someone who has a good understanding of the impact and potential of digital and could champion this at board level. They would often be the person who the people delivering initiatives would have an ongoing discussion with outside of the boardroom. They might also be the person to allay fears and drive change within an organisation.

Digital initiatives often result in wide and deep structural and/or cultural changes. Having someone at the helm to help navigate these changes can be hugely beneficial. They also help to avoid people blaming ‘IT’ or ‘digital’ if things go wrong or there are teething problems.

We also discussed the premise that having a Chief Digital Officer would probably be a passing phase and that as the wider board became more digitally savvy and digital was more integrated into every part of an organisation, the role would evolve or no longer be required.

One red flag raised on the topic of Chief Digital Officers is that having a single person at board level responsible for digital does run the risk of them becoming the scapegoat if things go wrong. There is a risk that their appointment can let everyone else off the hook. If we are to argue that digital touches all aspects of business then surely the board as a whole needs to be accountable?

Over the years, some IT departments have operated at arms-length from the organisations they serve. Many have found it’s easier to say no rather than move forward. We do not want this to become the fate of the digital department, whether the organisation is operating in the private sector or the public sector.


Reading Room is is a digital consultancy that identifies opportunities, creates experiences and builds systems to help clients benefit from technological change. It joined the Idox group of companies in 2015.

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