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The rise of the digital board director

The rise of the digital board director

What is it like serving on a corporate board? CIOs tell their stories

Being an all-rounder

Garry Whatley is on the Multiple Sclerosis board and was on the Corporate Express board from 2002 until it delisted in 2010. He is also a board member of the CIO Executive Council Advisory.

He claims the way to be a board contributor is to have a holistic view of the business. CIOs need to be able to contribute to every discussion with all executives on a board, not just talk their tech bit and be done with it, he said.

“You are not there just to represent technology, you are there representing the business. I speak to a lot of CIOs and they think because they have a good understanding of the technology side, they should be represented on a board. That is only the start.

“They may be the subject matter expert in a certain area, but they need to have that broad view of the business.”

To get this, Whatley advised gaining experience in other parts of the organisation, or taking on additional responsibilities.

“At one stage I was CIO and I had marketing responsibility,” Whatley continued. “It’s having a strong business and financial understanding, and a good understanding of your customers. And then it’s the application of technology to drive business value.”

Garry Whatley, Multiple Sclerosis

You are there representing the business

Not bombarding executives with all the details, and focusing on business process and driving programs to deliver outcomes, is key to having effective conversations in board meetings, Whatley said.

“You also need that clarity, and to be very succinct. Most boards have a lot they are trying to get through in a meeting,” he added.

Security and privacy are usually topics board executives care most about when it comes to technology programs and IT, Whatley said, and CIOs need to prepare themselves for the hard questions beforehand.

“The AICD [Australian Institute of Company Directors] has an annual briefing and this year privacy and security were two key issues highlighted as areas that directors should be [well] across,” he noted.

“Very rarely would you ever want to go into a board meeting where it would be the first time those people see or hear your presentation.

As an executive director I’d speak to the CEO and CFO about what I am presenting. You wouldn’t need to speak to every board member, but at least get some feedback beforehand.”

Future workplace

CIOs working in external boards may find the experience particularly valuable, said Tracy Voice, CIO and currently acting deputy director general for corporate services at the Ministry for Primary Industries.

“It allows them to be a professional in a different realm and it really contributes to that governance skill, which is not operational.”

Voice has been chair of the Trinity Schools Trust Board in New Zealand for more than five years and is the only ICT executive in the group, which includes finance, corporate governance and property professionals.

“You’re looking effectively at a business, because it’s operated as a business,” she says of the board, which oversees four Anglican state-integrated schools.

“There’s a real need in education at the moment for ICT specialists to help, either with the Board of Trustees or Board of Proprietors. I suspect the ICT skill set is now sought after because technology innovation is the future.”

Key projects being focused on include rolling out ultrafast broadband and the need to connect with Network for Learning (N4L), the managed network designed for New Zealand’s 2500 schools.

“There is a whole support model that must be thought through, which can be complex for a principal and teaching staff.”

When Voice was general manager of business enabling at NZ Post, she led the rollout of Google enterprise applications across the group. Her experience came in handy two years ago when the school trialled Hapara, Google’s dashboard for teachers in the primary school which is still being used today.

Voice’s school board involvement gives her a first-hand view of how students are using collaboration tools. “That does give me an insight on the way the children are working, to actually think about how we should be enabling those platforms for that future generation coming [to our workplace].”

Additional reporting by Rebecca Merrett

Gaining board-level skills

As more boards work to fill their ranks with EBTG competent members, executives holding both digital nous and business credibility will be increasingly sought after, Enterprise Governance’s Elizabeth Valentine said.

Tech savvy executives, including CIOs with exceptional business skills and non-technology executives in the digital space, are best equipped to fill future digital director roles.

According to Valentine’s research on nearly 400 directors and senior business executives (enterprisegovernance.com.au), 75 per cent agree or strongly agree that it is very important for boards to include directors with enterprise business technology governance knowledge, skills and experience so they can ask the right questions to management and advisors.

But CIOs and other ICT leaders who aim to slide into board roles need to work on three areas:

Build bridges

Work with the board, and also within and across business units. To do this, IT leaders need to first earn the right to present to the board directly, Valentine says.

“There is a causal link between the level of engagement between the board and the CIO and bottom-line results,” she says.

“Boards, even if they don’t have EBTG competency, can start building awareness and skills through engaging with their CIO. The latter, in particular, understands the organisational issues and how technology relates better than an external advisor.”

Create a vision for a digital future

“Look at the level of opportunity that the whole range of third platform technologies offers your business,” Valentine says, adding that metrics on how the program will add value are vital. “Show them an integrated plan that leads towards a really digital vision for the organisation.”

Become a business partner

Valentine strongly encourages IT leaders to get business skills and drop the technical jargon, as it can create a barrier with business colleagues. As an example, she highlights the term ‘enterprise architecture.’

“If the terminology enterprise architecture doesn't mean anything to the business, simply talk about the design of the technology system and how that supports the business achieving its results.”

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Tags governancesecurity breachprivate sectorElizabeth Valentinedigital board directorEnterprise Governance

More about Australian Institute of Company DirectorsBecaCIO Executive CouncilCorporate ExpressDLAGartnerGoogleHaparaHPJericho Digital CommunicationsMIHPhillips FoxQueensland University of TechnologyTechnology

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