I first attended the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) more than 30 years ago and have visited periodically over the intervening years. Rest assured that the creativity and sheer volume of innovation exhibited there never ceases to amaze and impress me. While some of it is developed and showcased by global companies such as Samsung and Kohler, the showroom floor is also filled with talent previously working behind the scenes at various brands, or by truly start-up entrepreneurs.
This was the first time that I have viewed the show through the eyes of a corporate director. As I walked more than 10 miles through the aisles over the course of CES 2018, I considered the governance implications of what I saw.
To me, one of the benefits of being at CES is being away from daily routines and taking the opportunity to observe and just let your mind cogitate the possibilities. And cogitate I did. In some cases, I wanted to know not only what the product did, but how it was made. In other instances, I wondered how a product could be marketed or sold, what companies would create its competitor products, and what adoption rate was required to make the product financially successful.
So, what did I find exciting? What made the governance wheels in my head turn? Below are a few themes that stood out.
Quantum Computers. From a pure technology standpoint, the quantum computer stands out due to its astounding small size yet incredible processing power. Intel, which is one of the leaders of the quantum computing race, kicked the week off by exhibiting its own advancements in engineering one of the most powerful quantum chips yet. The IBM Research group, on the other hand, displayed its quantum computer as a stunning piece of art.
Sensors and the Internet of Things. Sensors—which were imbedded in everything from fabrics to headsets, from vehicles to medical products, and in everything else you might imagine would benefit from being connected—continued to impress due to the breadth of their utility. One clever use of sensors was the ShadeCraft patio umbrella whose electronics and robotics allowed it to automatically raise and lower itself based upon current light and weather conditions. This product not only understood sunrise and sunset, but followed the sun throughout the day to properly tilt the umbrella and gauged wind speed or rain to automatically close the umbrella without human intervention. No more worrying about your expensive patio umbrella being turned inside out, upending your table, or taking off as a projectile when you weren’t available to tend it.
Autonomous Vehicles. There was an incredible number of offerings around autonomous vehicles. I use the term vehicles instead of cars because the auto-drive implications are also clear for vans, trucks, tractors, forklifts, campers, and other vehicles. Here again the use of sensors was key, and there is no doubt that many of these machines will perform better than the drivers that we currently encounter on the road, human foibles and all.
Medical Aids. Regarding other products, I found so many to be interesting. There was an audio system that not only provided a hearing test but progressed to actually construct an ear bud that utilized the results of the hearing test to produce a customized hearing aid. Phenomenal! Anyone who has gone through the rigor of selecting a hearing aid device can appreciate this speedy, streamlined approach, especially when it is at half the price point of today’s offerings. Next, I liked the Gyenno Co., which developed a special spoon that automatically levels its contents to eliminate spilling. This will provide such a caring and practical solution for those with Parkinson’s or other medical issues that have a problem feeding themselves due to tremors.
3D Printing. Another greatly improved invention is 3D printing. Although the method has been around for a while, it is now not limited to plastics or small items. Printers can fabricate in a variety of mediums and to great scale. For example, there was a camper-type van displayed on the showroom floor that was created by 3D printing. It was produced quickly and at much less expense than a traditional van. It is easy to extrapolate the utility of 3D printing to assist various businesses since it permits specialty solutions that previously did not have the volume to be economically feasible from the producer’s perspective, and were not affordable from the buyer’s standpoint.
Odds and Ends. Three fun offerings were related to beer, fingernails, and laundry. Although I am not a beer drinker, the PicoBrew easily allows making craft beers at home and would be a hit with many of my friends. And I know those who would like the fingernail machine that can use any photos to create vinyl nails for application at home. Finally I’ll introduce the FoldiMate, a device that folds your laundry when you feed it into the machine. It could be the next best thing since sliced bread for the lazy among us.
It is worth noting that one of the great joys of CES is that everyone is welcome, and that the exhibitors and subject-matter experts arrive from many countries. CES makes clear that the desire to innovate transcends borders and creeds, and that the glue holding this incredible meeting together is not so-called “geekiness,” but a superior level of creativity, intellectual curiosity, and desire for business success—and, perhaps above all, the desire by many to improve living conditions around the world.
I’ll close by saying everyone should attend this show once their life time. As a director, I suggest setting the goal of attending every three to five years. CES presents a soup-to-nuts view of developments in products and technology that consumers will anticipate. Even if you are not affiliated with what is considered a consumer business, you do serve customers that will continue to expect innovation. As I absorbed the week’s events and considered the possibilities around every corner, CES opened my mind about what could or should be considered in the boardroom related to strategy and risk. It was well worth my time, and would be for you, too.
Kathleen Misunas is a director of Boingo Wireless and Tech Data Corp., two publicly traded technology companies.
An old boardroom adage is that directors must be “proactive,” rather than “reactive.” But what does this mean? When disruptive events occur, boards need to respond to them—so isn’t this reaction? I believe that board action must be based on principles, which I define (with Merriam-Webster) as a “moral rule or belief that helps us know what is right and wrong and that influences our actions.” A board’s response is reactive if directors focus mainly on an event; it is proactive if it stems from their values.
Principles can make a positive difference in the destinies of enterprises that embrace them. That is why NACD is in the principles business, so to speak. Every year since our first Blue Ribbon Commission gathered to discuss executive compensation a quarter century ago, we have been asserting general concepts that have had a measurable impact on boards. As this past research blog explains, many of our Blue Ribbon Commission reports and the principles they advocate have had a measurable influence on board practices. We know this by comparing the recommendations of our reports, and subsequent changes in practices as measured by our surveys.
And the good news is that a principles-based approach to governance can improve corporate financial performance. While many governance researchers have tried and failed to show a correlation between specific governance practices and financial performance, performance does seem correlated to an overall principles-based approach. Following the introduction in various countries around the world of principles-based governance (e.g., comply or explain stock listing standards), there have been improvements in financial performance. Studies in many jurisdictions, including Austria, Canada, Kenya, New Zealand, demonstrate the evidence.
Principles can also forge consensus. When you boil things down to basic principles, the three main actors on the governance stage—management, shareholders, and directors (the three sides of the so-called governance triangle)—think remarkably alike. Governance pioneer Ira M. Millstein noted this ten years ago in an NACD board discussion. When Ira speaks, boards listen. He was the original author of the first governance guidelines at General Motors Co., and, with Holly Gregory, a drafter of the original OECD Principles of Corporate Governance, another powerful guide to board work.
The NACD board responded to Ira’s idea by urging us to undertake what became the original Key Agreed Principles, which presented all known areas of agreement in principles published by the Business Roundtable, the Council of Institutional Investors, the International Corporate Governance Network, and NACD. NACD principles at the time numbered in the hundreds; they resided in the many Blue Ribbon Commission reports we had published on various governance subjects.
Other Notable Principles Documents
Since then, the Key Agreed Principles document has remained relevant to many boards. We have seen these Key Agreed Principles affect positive change in many areas, and we have seen other groups seek a principles-based approach to their activities.
In the future, in consideration of the new blueprints from these other groups, as well as developments at NACD itself, we will release a new edition of the Key Agreed Principles. To do so, we will once again compare the principles currently advocated by the original signatories.
Why keep the Principles document going? I believe that when directors apply sets of principles, rather than a hodgepodge of arbitrary rules, they can engage their minds and wills for action. Some principles in corporate governance prove so true that they operate as powerfully as first principles in science, determining outcomes. It may well have been principles that created our very nation. After all, Thomas Paine noted that “An army of principles can penetrate where an army of soldiers cannot.”
With good principles at hand, boards are always ready to respond to the next crisis, and to prevail with strength and wisdom. We trust that the power of principles will continue to animate corporate governance—and improve firm performance—in the years to come.
A positive outlook for the global economy notwithstanding, the operating and investment risk for companies in today’s global environment should not be underestimated. Building resilience against a wide and expanding array of potential shocks will be required for sustainable success.
For corporate directors, this is a time for challenging institutional assumptions — and recognizing not just that new risks are appearing on the horizon but that operational risks may become strategic ones, known risks may become unknown, controllable risks may become uncontrollable, and risks assumed to be acceptable may acquire “fat tails.”
The newly released Global Risks Report, prepared by the World Economic Forum with the support of Marsh & McLennan Companies and other partners, evaluates the major threats facing the world over the next decade and provides a rich context to help organizations chart an aggressive growth strategy.
The risk landscape is shifting.
This year’s survey revealed deep pessimism about the direction of international relations. Ninety-three percent of survey respondents from across the global risk community expect that political and economic confrontations between major powers will increase in 2018. There were high levels of concern about an increase in state-on-state conflicts that may draw in other countries. Western respondents also highlighted growing concern about economic protectionism.
Technological risks are seen as a rising global threat. Business leaders in advanced economies consider large cyber attacks to be the number-one risk for doing business in their respective countries, and respondents in most parts of the world anticipate these attacks will get worse in 2018. Societal risk emanating from the increase in media echo chambers and fake news is also expected to grow.
On a longer-term horizon, environmental risks ranked highest in both likelihood and impact. Extreme weather and failure to adapt to climate change showed the greatest leap in concern since last year’s report, perhaps reflecting the hurricanes, earthquakes, and wildfires suffered during September when the survey was open. However, even before the devastating events of 2017, apprehension in this area was strongly reflected in this survey.
Companies are increasingly vulnerable to shocks and disruption.
Positive growth in recent months shouldn’t blind businesses to potential economic fragilities. The debt-to-equity ratio of the median S&P 1500 company (excluding financials) has almost doubled since 2010 and is now well above pre-financial crisis levels. Asset prices in some sectors are at historically high levels. Global debt has risen to a record $233 trillion, and at 318 percent, the global debt to GDP ratio remains near its all-time high.
Persistent low commodity prices continue to rattle exporter countries and their neighbors, which presents political and societal implications. Structural issues such as income inequality, rising health care costs, and diminishing long-term retirement security also show little sign of being resolved.
Against this backdrop, how will investor and corporate confidence fare in the event of a major geopolitical altercation, an aggravated trade stand-off, or a technological catastrophe—none of which are implausible?
A Business Lens
Corporate lifespans are dramatically shortening. The average time companies spend in the S&P 500 index has already decreased from approximately 60 years in the 1950s to 12 years today. The velocity of change in the current environment, creating both new opportunities and new threats, will likely drive this lifecycle down even further. The pressure to define and execute a strategy with both bold ambition and resilience against major shocks has never been higher.
It’s imperative for board members to ensure their company’s leadership makes every effort to reconcile growth and innovation opportunities with risk and security considerations, while rigorously assessing the value of potential initiatives in a wide range of scenarios. A dual focus on prevention and response—given the increased velocity of new and unpredictable risks—is needed.
As our recent paper on Getting Practical with Emerging Risks notes, clarity on the sorts of intelligence expected and opportunities for the board to discuss weak signals will help achieve a cohesive approach to sense-making and alignment with senior management on the way ahead. Boards that engage with complex uncertainties will be best positioned to help their firms negotiate today’s dynamic risk environment laden with potential shocks and disruption.
Richard Smith-Bingham is a director in Marsh & McLennan Companies’ Global Risk Center and leads MMC’s thinking on the evolving macro-level risk landscape and how companies and governments can best anticipate and negotiate rising threats.