If ever there was a time for Australia’s boardrooms to look around the table and assess their own digital skills and technology experience it is right now, Australian Institute of Company Directors managing director Angus Armour says.
In fact, it is probably past time given the pandemic induced scramble among businesses and not-for-profits to build whole new online work environments and implement new digital business models.
Board level technical skills and digital literacy has been on the AICD radar for some time. The Driving Innovation: The boardroom gap report released by the association in September last year is worth revisiting.
The report makes for sobering reading, Mr Armour says. Just three per cent of the directors surveyed had a background in science and technology, a headline number that exposed serious lack of diversity of skills at board level.
At a time when the application of new and fast-moving technology is disrupting most sectors of the global economy, this is not a time to be lacking.
Mr Armour says that perversely, the coronavirus pandemic and the response to it in Australia should be cause for some optimism. Of course, we are in troubled and uncertain economic times and the bigger challenges are ahead of us rather than behind.
But the business response, and that of not for profits, in driving new processes and new business models should be all the proof that companies need that we are capable of dealing with the opportunities and challenges of tech and innovation at speed.
And Australian companies will certainly need to in order to compete and thrive in the global economy.
The trick will be in maintaining the sense of urgency of the pandemic – the jolt that was delivered via COVID-19.
A little paranoia can take you a long way in business, said Mr Armour, who is a big fan of former Intel chief executive Andy Grove’s book Only the Paranoid Survive and he is hoping that Australian directors – and local businesses and not-for-profits – can retain an element of that jolt-induced paranoia into the future, to stay fast on their feet and prepared to take calculated risks to drive improvements through innovation.
“In order to compete in the global economy, or to provide social services in the national economy, innovation is a fundamental dimension,” Mr Armour said.
“It’s not about only focusing on stability or security at the expense of everything else. It is about taking risks and embracing technology in a prudent and sensible way,” he said. “We have to keep this frame of reference [about urgency] for some time to maintain – almost – this sense of crisis.
“We don’t want people to be unsettled. We don’t want them to be dismayed about the future. But we do want them, in the boardrooms and executive teams, to be more aggressive, faster, more urgent.”
The AICD has pressed gender diversity issues as a fundamental for some time. It is now arguing in an equally forceful way for “cognitive diversity and diversity of skill” to get a new group pf people around the table who can provide perspective on science and technology.”
Indirectly, Mr Armour says this is also an argument for youth, a younger generation that has a different attitude to what technology can do and a different relationship with the dynamics of technology change.
“In a digital economy you need to be completely comfortable in speaking and asking questions in this environment.”
Like many across the economy, Mr Armour is hopeful that the air of cooperation across the different levels of government – and political parties – continues to enable the best possible response to the changed and difficult economic environment.
The response will require some imaginative policy thinking, and inevitably there will be measures that don’t immediately deliver the expected results.
Having entered the terrible early days of the pandemic from an era of hyper-partisanship – where every policy issue had become highly contested as a point of political differentiation on social media as in parliament – Mr Armour hopes the policy environment has calmed somewhat.
“There is a window here where perhaps people would become more forgiving. I would suggest that any voice of authority in our economy to be more measured as we address our challenges. This acknowledges upfront, particularly at this point, that mistakes will be made.”