A new direction for boards


Board recruitment by established companies has been slow to adapt to the challenges of AI, automation, and the changing workforce, says Women on Boards Chair Ruth Medd.


Speaking at the recent CRC Conference (Collaborate Innovate) in Adelaide on the topic of 'the diversity dividend,' Ruth outlined the need for a board member with strong STEM skills.

STEM skills are recognised as vital to the knowledge economy and will become even more valuable to the digital age as it evolves because of the uptake in artificial intelligence (AI) technologies.

Sensationalist media suggest large number of jobs will disappear as AI ‘takes over’. This is far from the case, and the McKinsey Global Institute’s Jobs Lost, Jobs Gained:

Workforce Transitions in a Time of Automation, from December 2017 is an excellent reference.

Some parts of jobs are clearly susceptible to automation. On the other side of the ledger, the digital economy is rapidly creating jobs in data analytics, algorithm design and testing and perhaps biggest of all, in privacy, risk management, compliance and monitoring.

Women on Boards (WOB) specialises in encouraging and assisting women to take on board roles. Part of what we do involves keeping a watch on changing trends in director appointment. Boards have been relatively slow to apply modern, skills-based recruitment approaches. They are moving from ‘who do we know’ in our network, to a skills and capabilities approach – but this is taking time.

We have seen at WOB the gradual realisation amongst boards that their board members need contemporary skills. As an exercise, look at the CVs of board members of recently listed, digitally enabled companies to get a feel for this.

This is partly because a large number of new companies are disruptors. Some of the common business models are:

  • Variants on the now well-established sharing economy;
  • Specialised recruitment businesses which focus on hard-to-find  segments, such as part-time professionals or those willing to job share;
  • A myriad of sliced and diced fintech business models for property, loans, payments and retail insurance.

All these businesses aim for scale and better ways of delineating consumers. Some succeed, but most don’t as they fail to access customers and capital. Or, someone comes along who is more fleet of foot. There is no shortage of great ideas.

Established companies need to respond to disruption. Do they understand it? Do they fear company revenue will be cannibalised if they act? Step in the modern director; one who can contribute to board thinking as a company faces disruption.

What might this director look like? Perhaps the person will come with innovation expertise, successful start-up expertise or a deep understanding of the building blocks of innovation, which requires an appreciation of the innovation pipeline of projects with agile project management and well-disciplined stop points.

The challenge for any aspiring director is to persuade a Chair that you can add value. But clearly there is room on a board for a director with STEM skills.

Characteristics of the digital director

  • Knows about their customers lives
  • Has experience beyond Australia
  • Recognises the importance of data & digital dexterity
  • Recognises a digital CEO as someone who has:
    • Knowledge of digital in all elements
    • A digital mindset
    • An agile approach to the business

    Ruth Medd
    For the CRC Association, May, 2019

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