Digital what? Most boards still stuck in the dark ages

board of directorsUK bosses are becoming increasingly out of touch with the digital skills required to respond to market demands, despite growing recognition that digital innovation is one of the highest priorities for businesses.

According to a study by recruitment consultancy Harvey Nash and the London Business School’s Leadership Institute, only two-fifths (42%) of UK boards of directors feel they have the right skills to cope with the digital economy.

Nevertheless, the study does note that digital is moving further up the list of priorities for the participants, of which almost a quarter (21%) are members of the boards of major PLCs. It just does not say how quickly this is happening.

London Business School deputy dean professor Julian Birkinshaw said: “Digital innovation has propelled itself towards the top of the agenda for boards in 2019, as the continuing rise of digital giants like Google, Amazon, Apple and Alibaba is causing companies in every sector to worry they will go the way of Kodak or Blockbuster.

“But it is important to remember that there are still plenty of sectors – like retail banking, accounting, food and drink, or chemicals – where the biggest companies today are the same as they were 30 years ago.

“As a board member, you need to simultaneously worry about the threat of digital disruption while also reminding yourself of the deep capabilities, strong customer relationships, and powerful brand that you can use to sustain your company through these difficult times.”

The situation regarding digital skills in the boardroom at a global level is not that different. According to the study, which polled 640 chairs and non-executives from across the world, less than half (47%) feel they are digitally prepared. This compares to 58% in 2018.

While boards feel they are lagging behind in terms of skills, participants also estimate technologies such as artificial intelligence will continue to replace jobs, with 16% of the executives polled predicting that 16% of the workforce will be replaced by AI in the next five years.

Harvey Nash chief executive Albert Ellis explained: “The future under AI will be more complex and nuanced than simply replacing humans with machines. We believe that roles will be reskilled and redeployed as organisations recognise the importance of retaining talent.”

Even so, there are still plenty of firms out there splashing the cash, with a recent IDC report predicting that spending on technologies and services that enable digital transformation will soar to $7.4 trillion (£5.7tn) in three years, driven by data intelligence and analytics.

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