Over the next few years, the digital revolution will force many organizations to undertake radical change programs and, in some cases, completely reinvent themselves to remain relevant and competitive. Ask executives and directors what their company’s biggest threats are, and chances are the answer will include the threat of disruptive innovation. That said, is disruptive innovation sufficiently emphasized on the board agenda?
Our experience indicates that most boards do not fully grasp the opportunities and risks associated with digital transformation. There are four important activities for organizations to consider as they contemplate what digital means to their business and strategy.
1. Assess digital competencies. Protiviti’s original research has identified more than 30 competencies at which digital leaders excel. These competencies consist of empirically supported capabilities and structural characteristics that can be used to benchmark the organization. They are arrayed across six core disciplines that many traditional businesses struggle with:
vision, mission, and strategy;
management and employee culture;
organization, structure, and processes;
communication, marketing, and sales;
technology innovation and development;
and big data, analytics, and automation.
An example of a competency related to “vision, mission, and strategy” is that executive management must have a clear understanding of the potential impact of digital disruption in the industry segments in which the organization operates and be able to articulate a clear strategic vision fit for the digital age. In addition, digital strategy-setting and review should be a continuous activity for the business and in the boardroom.
Competencies can be useful when plotting the path toward digital maturity. The strategy should reflect the competencies that currently define the organization and address the absence of those which present barriers to success. This is important because the digital age is forcing organizations to radically rethink how to engage with customers and pursue design breakthroughs for improving processes and functions continuously. That means they must balance outside-the-box thinking with the practical considerations of repositioning the business. Many strategies ignore these fundamental issues, resulting in a business that is digital on the edges but not at the core. Our view is that a truly digital business has a digital core.
2. Define and refine continuously the digital vision and strategy. Organizations need to make a conscious decision about whether they are going to lead as the disrupter of the industry or, alternatively, play a waiting game, monitor the competitive landscape, and react only when necessary to defend market share. For many companies, the answer may be somewhere in between. For organizations choosing not to actively disrupt the status quo, their challenge is to be agile enough to react quickly as an early mover. Few are ready for that challenge, however.
A leader of the organization must own responsibility for understanding the competitive landscape, the opportunities emerging technologies present, and the threats to existing revenue streams. Management must frame the digital vision and the strategic initiatives supporting it around the enterprise’s core competencies. The vision must reflect the direction in which relevant digital technology is trending. It should express how technology can elevate the company’s differentiating core competencies and deliver unique customer experiences. With technology and regulations changing, and innovation happening so rapidly, the business needs to review and refine its digital priorities constantly.
3. Define the target operating model. Too often policies, processes, and organizational structures get in the way of a business becoming and remaining digital. The key is to empower, trust, and monitor people, not control them. That’s a different way of thinking for organizations rooted in “command and control” structures. The business should clearly define where it’s going in its vision and strategy, and management must recruit and train the right people while ensuring that the enterprise’s policies, processes, and systems are suitable to compete in a digital world.
Accordingly, management should define the processes, organization, talent, methodologies, and systems comprising a future operating model that remains true to the company’s identity and brand promise. In the rush to become digital, the importance of policies shouldn’t be forgotten to address risks and ethical questions leaders must consider.
With the current and future states defined, improvement plans should be developed to close the gaps based on industry best practices and reviewed with executive management and the board. The risks associated with the target state should be identified and assessed against the entity’s risk appetite. In this respect, management should be careful to avoid understating the hyper-scalable business model component of digital transformation. Digital thinking requires organizations to solve the problem of rapid growth and scalability to rely primarily on technology rather than people, as opposed to the traditional focus on scaling ahead of demand.
4. Align the organization with the needed change. Using digital technologies to improve products, services, and processes requires focus and discipline. To enable continuous or breakthrough change with confidence, buy-in must be obtained from executive management and the board for significant changes in strategy, processes, and systems. Support also is needed from business-line leaders, operating personnel, and process owners affected by the change. The communication of change and its implications must address why a digitally-focused culture is necessary for the entity to survive and thrive, and offer a compelling case that the interests of employees and the enterprise are inextricably tied to effecting change.
Depending on a director’s perspective, the exciting or worrisome truth is that the digital revolution is just getting started. Even when executives are aware of emerging technologies that obviously have disruptive potential, it is often difficult to have the vision or foresight to anticipate the nature and extent of change. That is why every organization must chart its own digital journey.
To that end, the board should be engaged in all of the above activities, from readiness assessment to organizational alignment. When addressing digital, directors should recognize the signs of organizational short-termism and executive management’s emotional investment in traditional business models. Ultimately, the board must ask the necessary questions to encourage management to advance the enterprise’s digital journey at a pace that will sustain the company’s sources of competitive advantage and market position.
Global marketing officer Karin Timpone recently participated in the NACD Capital Area Chapter’s season kick-off program on social media. Timpone, who leads the integrated global marketing and consumer relationship management strategy for Marriott International, suggests that in the long term, boards must consider the broader impact of companies like Facebook, with its two billion users, and Amazon.com, with an estimated number of customers at well over 200 million, having digital empires with deep customer data. “Consider how your company will fit into the new digital world order,” said Timpone.
In the meantime, boards should be asking the right question about the status of current efforts in the digital realm. Specifically, Timpone recommends that they ask five key questions:
1. What is the company’s content strategy?
Social media has disrupted business as we know it. “The upside of this disruption is the opportunity to have a two-way conversation with your audience,” said Timpone. “You can also amplify your marketing efforts, allowing the social graph to carry your message.” However, the downside is that a company cannot expect its messages to follow a company calendar. Instead, the company has to be constantly vigilant about being a part of the conversation.
The board should be informed about what the company is planning to talk about, why, and with what voice. Also, ask about the media mix—that is, what has modeling shown in terms of where money should be spent? Is “brand safety” (where the brand appears and what is near it) being considered?
2. How are crisis management and customer care intersecting in the social world?
Timpone emphasizes the need for processes in social media crisis management. “The board should know how crisis management and customer care intersect,” she said. “Social media should be governed in a multi-faceted way; it’s part of an ecosystem that has the customer at the center.”
Marriott has set up newsrooms around the world in order to stay abreast of news and social media. “We have to make sure we aren’t publishing something that is tone deaf and that we are dialing up our communication when needed.” Software helps power these newsrooms, using geofencing technology to pick up company-related tweets, for example.
3. How do employees fit into the company’s social strategy?
Companies must have clear policies about employees’ use of social media. Timpone said, “Be clear whether it’s a person’s job to post on social medial for the company.” Also, human resources departments—along with other key stakeholders—should be part of management’s internal communications governance group.
4. Is the company keeping up with quickly changing technology?
The risk of not keeping up with the latest technologies must be mitigated. For example, Facebook is now emphasizing video and live features. “The social media program metrics have to change with the technology,” said Timpone.
5. What are the business outcomes of the social media strategy and how is the program being measured?
Metrics for a social media strategy may be counterintuitive compared to traditional media. For example, not doing anything can sometimes have more impact than doing something. In one instance, a company got extensive press and positive social media results for not buying a Super Bowl advertisement. Whatever the company’s strategy, “the board should ask about the program’s key performance indicators,” said Timpone. “What is measured gets done.”
NACD Capital Area would like to thank sponsor WilmerHale for hosting the program and Timpone’s fellow panelist, William Bethune, for also sharing his views.
Kimberly Simpson is an NACD regional director, providing strategic support to NACD chapters in the Capital Area, Atlanta, Florida, the Carolinas, North Texas and the Research Triangle. Simpson, a former general counsel, was a U.S. Marshall Memorial Fellow to Europe in 2005.
Hurricanes. Hostile Mergers. Data breaches. A misconstrued comment on social media. These are a few of the real and figurative storms that companies weather regularly with the help of internal and external staff, and regular advice from their general counsel (GC).
The National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD) recently convened its General Counsel Steering Committee. Crisis communications counsel James Barron, a managing director of the New York office of Sard Verbinnen & Co. (SVC), a specialist financial and crisis communications firm, led a discussion of more than 30 GCs from top companies in a discussion on topics that keep them awake at night, including cyberattacks, scandals, and the delicate art of communicating to stakeholders when a crisis occurs.
Barron emphasized that often times the GC plays “the role of the company quarterback,” having witnessed this many times during his tenure at SVC. Directors often turn to their GCs to understand the roles they should play during a crisis, being cautious not to open themselves to future liability. General counsel can also be instrumental in ensuring that leadership proactively creates a response plan and then follows that plan should a crisis arise.
Concepts to include in the GC’s crisis playbook follow:*
1. Create a crisis response plan that is usable. No one has time to read dense policies in a crisis. “While there are some crises that can be anticipated and materials can be prepared in advance, I don’t believe in crisis plan books that are six inches thick,” Barron said. He pointed out that companies should take the time to identify and drill on the most likely crises, then use the lessons learned to refine crisis response processes and assign senior executives and board members to appropriate tasks.
2. Drill the plan. No company can prepare for every scenario that will emerge in a crisis, Barron noted that tabletop exercises can help GCs and boards identify their blind spots and fine-tune assignments of who will be responsible for what portion of the response. One Steering Committee member also pointed out that tabletop exercises surface differing opinions about how to handle a crisis. Consider, for instance, that the GC and the director of public relations often times have very different opinions regarding messaging and speed of outreach. Hashing out disagreements before an event occurs will encourage the GC, executives, and directors to present a united front when a crisis occurs.
3. GCs are Quarterbacks. Barron said GCs often play the role of organizing the team and breaking down silos. “GCs find themselves corralling multiple groups, including senior management, the Board, operational management and communications functions. In addition, they have responsibility for outside counsel and often specialist PR firms such as Sard Verbinnen,” he said. “Their role is often to balance competing needs, particularly where there is a tension between the business needs and legal requirements.”
4. Identifying the need for public communication. Barron reminded the members of the Steering Committee that during times of peace at the company, they should consider mapping out which scenarios will need to be communicated publicly and which shouldn’t, what regulatory and legal ramifications exist for disclosing and not disclosing certain matters, and communicate the plan to the board and senior executives accordingly.
5. Understand who must be included in a crisis response plan. One Steering Committee member brought to the group’s attention that sometimes regulations demand that the CEO is involved in response to a crisis. Still another mentioned that the board at his company could not be involved in crisis response because they could not move at the speed that their senior management team could respond.
6. Seek outside counsel when a key player acts out of step with the plan. Barron pointed out that even with a plan in place, sometimes a key executive speaks out of order during a crisis, causing tension and discord between the board, and other executives. In this case, Barron notes that it’s “sometimes easier for an external legal advisor or communications group to ensure that the right decisions are made.”
7. Update your corporate contacts regularly. Several participants pointed out that having the right phone numbers for the right people is essential when management, the board, and GCs have only minutes to respond to a crisis. While this seems like a fairly simple task, Steering Committee members pointed out that having a list of who needs to be contacted immediately should exist in the crisis-response playbook—including every possible phone number or other contact needed to reach that person. Contacts should also be kept fresh for essential regulators, outside counsel, and other stakeholders who may need to be contacted.
8. Plan for the long-haul. One GC pointed out that some crises require weeks and even months of attention from top-level executives and the board. In addition to planning for immediate response, Steering Committee members agreed that a chain of assistance should be built to support the work done by responding executives and GCs. Not doing so could create undue risk within the organization caused by neglected leadership.
NACD’s General Counsel Steering Committee brings together progressive general counsel from leading companies to engage in frank, informal discussions with each other and with NACD leaders about corporate governance practices and the changing business and regulatory environment. These conversations help inform the development of NACD resources, education programs, and events with a goal of strengthening the partnership between the general counsel and the board. NACD thanks the Steering Committee for its participation, and for strengthening and supporting the work of corporate directors across the country.
*All General Counsel Steering Committee meetings are held under Chatham House Rule. The names of GCs and companies are removed accordingly.