The reality: The opportunities and problems of information technology need business leadership. Boards and senior management can and should take smart steps to understand how IT changes business.
Digital technology is reaching into every type of business, at every level. It impacts every element of a firm’s value chain, from inbound logistics to after-sales service. As KPMG Enterprise Partner Brad Miller and Director Michael Alf explain, this presence should kill the myth that management of information technology (IT) in a growing business should simply be left to technology specialists.
Just as business leaders have had to learn finance and marketing, today’s business leaders must do whatever it takes to get on top of technology issues.
Miller acknowledges the challenge that the current waves of IT pose for any business leader.
“We are talking about the voice of the customer...the social media, the marketing side of things, we’re talking about software-as-a-service for core applications, cybersecurity, data analytics, and machine learning... It's all coming at you so fast and from every angle.”
For Miller, the challenge for leaders is to sort ‘signal from noise’.
“What bits do I need to know about? What is hype? What is not suitable for me? What are the tangible elements of this technology movement, and which ones are appropriate for my organisation?”
Miller and Alf warn against giving up the fight to understand IT, or to retreat into a state of denial. Miller says it is easy to think: “OK, I don’t understand robotics, I don’t understand cybersecurity... There's too much of this, so I'm not going to deal with it, and I will focus on traditional things like my marketing and operating model.”
Alf notes another dangerous mindset – the belief that the new technologies are overhyped. For some leaders, he says, “it's almost a badge of honour if you don't understand Snapchat”. In fact, information technology can be important even though its effects are sometimes exaggerated.
“Yes, digital transformation is a buzzword,” he says, “and yes, it's real. Both are true.”
But by pushing off key IT challenges to IT specialists in this way, the pair suggest, leaders cede control of their organisations.
How can leaders make this leap in their ability to deal with technology?
“That's one of the biggest questions of our time,” Alf says.
At a board level, mid-sized companies can look to their larger counterparts, which Miller notes have been seeking out directors who will bring technology savvy to the board table. Boards of mid-market enterprises can often benefit from an injection of new perspectives, he says.
“Adding someone with a technology bent, [with an] innovation perspective, is, I would say, a definite solution to some of this.”
Alf and Miller have seen boards try to embrace IT by getting more reports on new developments from their CIO. But boards do better when they integrate a technology perspective into everything they do.
To add a digital perspective to leaders’ discussions, Alf notes, a firm may find it needs to bring in savvier advisors. He says KPMG Enterprise can tap into a global knowledge pool and a network of leading-edge centres in innovation and IT.
Such partners can help identify and implement practical first steps into the digital realm. Rather than huge changes of direction, these can be manageable projects such as a software-as–a-service finance system. Miller says these projects will naturally push leaders to think harder about the capabilities they need within their organisations, setting them up for further digital initiatives later on. Smart partners can also help address pragmatic issues such as the best ways to capture needed data and use it to improve the business, he adds.
As leaders take on a digital mindset, the digital opportunities will become clearer.
Understanding IT is a good start, but believing it is too expensive to take advantage of could let leaders down in the race. We bust the myth that it has to be costly in: The myth: The best technology is always expensive.