Ethics and Governance

The technology disruption dilemma facing boards of directors

Jan 31, 2020


With so many disruptive technologies available, is it possible for to directors keep up with the needs of the business? Kieran Moynihan explains how, with the right NEDs, a company can thrive in a constantly evolving digital world.

As disruptive technologies such as artificial intelligence, robotic process automation and emerging payment technologies grow in adoption, many boards are struggling to understand how these will impact customers, market segment and the competitive landscape. Crucially, how can they incorporate these technologies into their overall strategy and business models?

This relentless wave of new technology disruption is increasingly upsetting the traditional hierarchy of markets by lowering the barrier to entry for new competitors. Companies need to adapt to harness the opportunities and benefits of these disruptive technologies otherwise it risks being left behind irrespective of its traditional market position.

Often, the reason behind this struggle to adapt to technological disruptions is that there is a significant lack of technology expertise among non-executive directors (NEDs). This is further compounded by a serious age diversity problem in boards where, across Ireland and the UK, the average age of many boards is late 50s to early 60s. The vast majority of these NEDs indicate that areas such as cyber-security are problematic for them. This, in turn, impacts their ability to provide high-quality, robust challenge, debate and oversight of the CEO and executive team in terms of how a company incorporates these disruptive technologies into its strategy. In marked contrast, younger NEDs in their 30s and 40s tend to be very comfortable in the digital and disruptive technology landscape, have a strong understanding of how customers’ requirements are evolving and can genuinely challenge and support the CEO and executive team in these areas.

In most boards, the traditional approach to selecting NEDs has been focused on a majority of generalists with significant executive experience, and a number of sector specialists, which has led to a predominance of financial and general business skills around the board table. However, as both the pace and complexity of emerging disruptive technologies has significantly increased, this traditional model is breaking down and many of the sector-specialist NEDs are finding it challenging to keep up with the pace of change. Many CEOs and executive teams are struggling to make big calls around technology and business model choices.

There is a growing trend of board chairs and CEOs who realise that, in order to thrive, the board team needs to be refreshed with the addition of NEDs who have advanced technology expertise. They will be able to provide ample support to both the overall board team and CEO/executive team, thereby strengthening the ability of the company to embrace disruptive technologies, understand the changing needs of their customers and position themselves for sustainable long-term success.

Kieran Moynihan is the Managing Partner of Board Excellence.