Add another skill to the list of qualities every director should possess: technological literacy. Technology-specific issues can get short shrift in the boardroom, because most directors lack “expertise” in the field. However, there are constantly stories of the pervasive aspects of technology, an area no longer reserved for companies such as Google, Apple or Microsoft. Just this week, it was revealed that some smartphones track and collect user location, and there was a potential security breach at a popular online game platform.
It would be unfathomable for a director to ignore a discussion about the company’s financials, because they were not an “audit expert.” Technology should be viewed in the same manner. The topic of IT risk oversight has been covered recently in both this blog site,and in a recent NACD white paper, “Taming Information Technology Risk: A New Framework for Boards of Directors,” published in collaboration with Oliver Wyman. This white paper details four areas of IT risk a firm could be exposed to:
Service & security risk
Of the four areas mentioned, recent data has placed a spotlight on the oversight of competitive risk, or the risk of competitors getting to the market faster. According to Arbitron and Edison Research, the amount of time Americans spend consuming radio, television and the Internet increased by roughly 20 percent over the past decade, from a daily average of 6 hours and 50 minutes in 2001 to a daily average of 8 hours and 11 minutes in 2011. This dramatic increase in consumer use of technology should be considered in all strategic planning, which is consistently ranked by directors as the top boardroom priority.
Boards are also directly experiencing the pervasive quality of technology. A recent article from the Wall Street Journal noted the increased use of videoconferencing at the boardroom level. Once avoided due to slow connections and poor visuals, Cisco Systems has improved the technology in its “telepresence,” a system that simulates in-person meetings. Many high profile boards use advanced videoconferencing for meetings, including American Express Co., Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and PepsiCo Inc. While virtual meetings are unlikely to create the collaborative dialogue created by in-person meetings, their use can supplement those in-person meetings, reduce travel expenses and potentially facilitate more international diversity in the boardroom.
With all the noise on the topic, I recently decided to spend some time asking Gib Hedstrom to give me the straight scoop about how boards address the issue of sustainability. Gib has been the “expert in the room” on these questions at more than fifty board meetings with major global companies, including Air Products, Ashland, and AlliedSignal (Honeywell). I asked him three simple questions. (OK, actually I asked him four):
What’s the best way for a board to define sustainability?
What do the “better boards” do in the area of sustainability?
As an individual director, what should I know about the topic? What questions should I be asking?
Here’s how Gib responded:
1. What’s the best way for a board to define sustainability?
Sustainability is about achieving enduring growth and profitability in the harsh face of 21st Century realities. The “new world order” of a swelling population, oil depletion, global warming, water scarcity, and economic turmoil makes this the fiercest competitive battleground for the next 20 years. It means rethinking everything.
It’s what I call “The Messy Transformation.”Most companies face significant risks. Yet whether you sell technology or transportation or consumer products – the opportunities are massive.
2. What do the better boards do in the area of sustainability?
The better boards bring sustainability into their deliberations about both risk and opportunity. On risk, they do three things:
Take a Business Portfolio Risk approach. For example, 20 percent of U.S. coal plants are scheduled to shut down by 2015. If that’s your energy source, it calls for a Plan B — and fast!
Encourage action on managing the relevant risk profile (short and long term) on Carbon Risk. For example, we see Samsung announcing that by 2013 it will cut by 50 percent the greenhouse gas emissions from its own operations and from the use of its products. We see Sony announce its plans to achieve a zero environmental footprint by 2050.
Keep Operational Risk management front and center. You don’t have to look far back in recent headlines for evidence about what a single disaster can do to your operations and public trust.
For the opportunity side, it’s about investment. Even in this uncertain financial climate, over $100 billion has been invested in renewable energy in the past two years. Companies like Cisco, IBM, Google and Microsoft are rushing to capture “smart grid” growth opportunities. P&G has a five-year goal to accumulate $50 billion in sustainable product sales by 2012, and will have “Sustainable Innovation Products” in 30 million U.S. homes by the end of this year. Bank of America recently announced it is ahead of schedule on its 10-year, $20 billion business initiative focused on addressing climate change.
3. As an individual director, what should I know about where a company stands on sustainability? What questions should I be asking?
At the next board meeting (or better yet, before it), ask these questions:
What would it look like to be a true sustainability leader? What would be the characteristics (e.g., zero waste, carbon neutral)? What would the portfolio look like (e.g., percent of sales from green products, services and solutions)? Is this just from our own operations or across our full supply chain?
Do we have a robust sustainability strategy and a multi-year plan that identifies our risks and opportunities? Our own sustainability scorecard?
So that’s what we hear from the true expert. Now, what does your board do?