Let’s start with a reality check. The average age of board members of most established, non-technology businesses is far higher than the general population’s average age (and still far more likely to be male than female).
In fact, on ASX200 boards in 2015, more than half of directors are aged over sixty, according to analysis by Corrs Chambers Westgarth.
Does this matter? Research has indicated that digital experience priorities are very different for older age groups. The following table highlights this research, which implies that older executives can be out of touch with their customers’ expectations:
(Source: EY – Digital Australia: State of the Nation 2015-16)
Clearly, these differences are more important in industries with younger target audiences. Yet, even in capital-intensive B2B sectors, the expectation of digitisation is a significant factor. For example, the 42-year-old foreman of a construction company is likely to expect that he can order materials from his suppliers from the building site using his mobile.
The point is not that all board members must start using Twitter and letting out their spare bedroom on AirBnB, but that they must be open-minded about their customers’ expectations.
Bear in mind that online activity is not always led by younger people. For example, Australians who are 65+ dedicate 31.8 per cent of their online spending to groceries and liquor compared to 4.6 per cent for 18-24 year olds. If you want to know how good woolworths.com.au’s UX is, your parents or grandparents might be the best people to ask. Australian consumers adapt to digital technology faster than most businesses. The first piece of advice to any director is to understand this reality and be alert and open-minded about the implications for your company.
Try to perceive your business as a customer does. Even if it isn’t realistic for you to think like a 23-year-old from a different ethnic background and gender, you can still challenge your management team on their understanding of that perspective. There are other things you can do to inform yourself:
- Read research (from all over the world) such as that from EY above;
- Speak to customers directly;
- If you have children (even grandchildren) or others you know in different demographics who are digital natives, talk to them;
- Think about establishing panels and advisory groups of university students or other cohorts of people from a younger generation.
A related strategy to consider is reverse mentoring, where you link up with someone younger than you and they act as your digital coach/mentor. As you build your knowledge and confidence in digital areas (without any expectation of becoming an expert), the key role of directors is to be a source of insightful, constructive challenges to the management team. We suggest the style of questions to consider might be framed as follows:
Make sure the conversation stays grounded in sound business needs and push back on any excessive use of jargon and buzz phrases. In particular, look for a strategy and implementation approach that is appropriately calibrated. One of the benefits of digital products, services and customer interactions is that they can often be created quickly for modest investment in trial and beta forms. Experiential feedback can be gathered rapidly and incorporated into the value proposition on very short cycles.
Once the process of constructive challenge is concluded and decisions made, it is vital to support the management team. Maintaining objectivity and independence is still appropriate for a director, but scepticism and distancing yourself from the outcome are not. You must be pulling on the same end of the rope. Finally, remember that this process does not end. There is no such thing as “future-proofing” and digital cycles can be extremely (and frustratingly) short. Unfortunately, they are determined by the market, so you can’t wish them away.
This article is the sixth part of an eight part series in which Orchestrate founder and Which-50 contributor Malcolm Alder and sponsored by Expert360 explains why business needs to begin on the digital journey.