Boardroom diversity critical in the face of continuous digital disruption

  • Companies and boards need to understand importance and threats of digital disruptions
  • Diverse boardroom allows for new ideas and perspectives

Pic of Tengku Farith courtesy of www.themalaysiantimes.com.my

We are, at this moment, in an era of continuous digital disruptions. At the rate new digital technologies get introduced into the world, the way we do business is in constant flux. Often we’re on a mine cart barrelling into the unknown. For businesses that can’t adapt, they’re, literally, headed into a dead end plunging into the abyss.

Tengku Farith Rithauddeen, the group chief executive officer and founder of web integration and application development provider SKALI Group, feels that businesses that have yet to adopt digital as their business strategy don’t quite grasp the situation fully.

“Companies and boards especially need to realise and appreciate the extent of the industry disruption and the threats these new disruptors or business models are to them,” he tells Digital News Asia in an email interview.

“For example, the conversation around 21st Century Boards or Industrial Revolution 4.0 may be too late as companies have already determined and deployed their strategies whilst some are just still talking about it! This digital era is about never-ending evolution and how it impacts the market. The bigger question is how quickly companies are able to navigate the change and adapt their business models and processes to remain ahead.”

In order to mitigate a digital setback, Farith says that boards and directors today need to have some level of understanding with regards to the digital landscape, especially trends that are affecting businesses.

One vital way to do so, Farith believes, is to have tech-savvy representation on boards.

“Having the right talent or director is critical to help companies navigate the challenges and complexities brought on by the technology and ensure companies are well-prepared to remain competitive,” he says.

 

Board diversity

Farith is essentially championing for board diversity, the idea that company boards need to have representation from various social, industry and experiential backgrounds in order to be more effective.

For him, board diversity means having representation from more than one industry, experience, background, ethnicity, nationality, and even personality.

“Diversity may be by age or gender as well. Specifically, having someone who can and will critically challenge status quo, ask hard-hitting questions and the ‘what if’s’ at the board level. Diversity brings new perspectives which is a way to counter ‘groupthink’ or any potential ‘herd’ mentality in boards where the less vocal or confrontational members will accede to the more dominant personality,” he elaborates.

This, of course, includes having digital representation on boards. With digital disruptions running rampant, there is now increasing relevance in having directors with digital expertise or competency who can provide the relevant input in the digitalisation process or adapting business strategies to counter such disruptions.

When asked if board diversity should be seen as mandatory, Farith agrees. “Broadening board composition will bring skillsets in addition to a much richer and deeper perspectives that can benefit the company. Board members are also able to learn from each other and gain different exposure that will further equip directors.”

An example, he says, are the skills and insights into the digital era that the younger generation can bring into the board room. At the same time, senior board members can impart and share their knowledge to the younger members.

 

Changing old thinkings

When it comes adopting digital as part of a business strategy, Farith says that there are three main challenges.

The first is financial constraints. For the most part, migrating business processes into digital is a big upfront investment and requires long-term budget commitment. At times, at the board level, directors are not willing to commit the funds for such transformation.

The second challenge is with technical resources, which relates back to board diversity. On the other hand, it also means having diverse company hiring as well. “This means organisations may need to recruit a different set of people. Sometimes, for traditional companies, it is challenging to attract and retain the right talent,” Farith says.

The third challenge is on where to start and begin the digital transformation. “It’s a long journey but weighing the pros and cons on where to start, coupled with getting the buy-in from the top and middle management, may be daunting.”

At the face of these challenges, Farith believes that exposure to current development and impact is key for businesses to keep up. “The management team or the main shareholders need to take the lead by infusing new digitally-literate board members,” he says.

Introducing new members won’t be enough. Farith says that upskilling existing board members is also important.

“Companies can enrol board members to talks, events or even having a disruptor to come over to share their business with the board members may be very effective. It is important for board members to appreciate the perspective of their colleagues and not serve as roadblocks to a progressive suggestion just because they did not understand nor appreciate its value,” he says.

Farith will be speaking at exactly one of those talks and event. The ICDM’s International Directors Summit 2019 – happening now till tomorrow – brings to the fore conversations around boardroom challenges and concerns, and how boards can adapt to them.

Such events can prove useful to companies. “This is important because it is difficult to influence and, in some instances, change the perception of board members. In such instances it is important to have the board members hear it from a neutral, external party,” Farith explains.

Organised by the Institute of Corporate Directors Malaysia (ICDM), the International Directors Summit 2019 is aimed at facilitating networking and exchange of ideas on governance and other boardroom issues among boards and directors from both the private and public sectors.

For more information, visit https://icdm.com.my/ids2019

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