Learners lead, leaders learn: The case for technology fluency in the C-Suite
“The capacity to learn is a gift; the ability to learn is a skill; the willingness to learn is a choice.”
—Brian Herbert, Author
It’s easy to think of life as linear stages. Where did you go to school? What do you do for a living? What are your retirement plans? These stages are interspersed with sporadic training, often to satisfy some corporate-wide fad. Anyone remember the mandatory, oft unused TQM training from the 1990s?
It’s a nice hangover from a slower era when skills acquired at college or an apprenticeship could last a lifetime, but this is now dated. With nineteen of the top twenty requested technology skills being new in the last twenty years, and 65% of the jobs preschool children today will do in the future not yet existing, learning is now a lifelong need regardless of your role.
In a previous blog post, I discussed the role technologists need to play in upskilling executives who don’t have a technology background. While I stand by this, what’s become apparent is that a leader who wants to remain relevant, regardless of their functional expertise, must be an active student of technology and data, and their enablers such as organisational change management (OCM) and modern ways of working. It’s simply not good enough to make this the CIO’s problem. Remember the old adage that managers ensure things are done right, and leaders ensure the right things are done? How can a leader live up to this expectation if they don’t understand the potential and limitations of their own organisation and the technology available? I’d question whether a leader who stops learning can be considered a leader still in today’s environment.
Progressive companies view transformations as never ending. Their leaders engage with both the vision and the details of their transformation. They can dive deep into challenges to help teams unblock progress, while remaining aloof enough that they neither attempt to micromanage nor lose sight of the destination and the need to adapt the route based on learnings.
So, what’s missing?
As a leader, I have no choice but to understand how finance works in an organisation rather than declare it the CFO’s problem if I spend too much money. So why do we still accept this attitude when it comes to technology? As a technology leader, I’m expected to talk comfortably about Capex, OpEx, and depreciation. The same is needed with non-technology leaders when it comes to technology.
Technology profoundly impacts how most executives think about and perform their roles. The Chief Marketing Officer needs to understand how to tap into the rapid proliferation of communication and commerce channels, how to process real time feedback, and how to develop a holistic view of the customer through data. The Chief HR Officer needs to define and embed an agile culture supported by appropriate hiring, incentive, and performance management processes, and invest in meaningful ongoing training programmes. Chief Financial Officers need to understand how to use automation to drive efficiency, retool financial processes for agility, and invest strategically in the cloud and data to grow the company, not just to reduce costs.
Call it IT-IQ, DQ, or whatever, the need is the same: to increase the understanding of technology so that leaders are comfortable and competent making decisions involving technology. This cannot simply be outsourced to others as leaders still have accountability for their decisions.
So, let’s call this need digital fluency.
Being digitally fluent
Fluency requires more than just attending a course. It requires ongoing learning. It requires a comfort understanding how technology can or can’t be used effectively. Fluency requires curiosity and a passion for learning; a willingness so say “I don’t understand” but then to do something about it. It’s about having the confidence to challenge superficial strategies (“Blockchain is the answer once we figure out the question”), dig deep into dated logic (“if I can see my data centre, it is more secure”), and see through misguided assertions (“my data centre is like the cloud”). It’s about being able to combine changes to technology and ways of working to deliver on outcomes that matter to, for example, turn data into real business value, rather than a data swamp.
Is there really a problem?
Companies’ Boards of Directors (BoDs) and C-Suites are tasked with technology spend oversight, ensuring operational effectiveness and efficiency through new ways of working, and ensuring employees are focused on driving outcomes important to customers and the company. It’s therefore disconcerting to see multiple studies over the last few years indicate less than 20% of these leaders are digitally fluent. And by the way, that number is generously on the upper end of most estimates. Surprisingly, one survey indicated that this is endemic with technology leaders too, with less than 50% of CIOs and CTOs digitally fluent . Often technology leaders have come up through routes that might not have exposed them to what “good” looks like with implementing business solutions.
Repeatedly, studies have shown a relationship between executive digital fluency and profitability, revenue, and productivity, especially if these individuals include the CEO and CFO. While there are natural benefits in moving to the cloud, an understanding of how new ways of working combined with the cloud’s pay-as-you-go, elastic model can enable significant leaps forward. One study cited operational cost reductions of up to 20% and half the time to market for new ideas for those companies that understand this .
A few other stats and studies help cement this point. A single digitally fluent director nearly doubles a BoD’s inclusion of technology into strategic conversations . These active, regular discussions yield an innovation dividend and help reduce cyber risks . Digitally fluent executives are more likely to project higher revenues, have higher customer and employee satisfaction, be more willing to experiment and to proactively identify new business opportunities, and to stay customer-relevant . In the fast-moving finance sector alone, we see customers such as Nasdaq, Capital One, and Goldman Sachs understand, actualise, and monetise digital fluency through new business models.
There are some obvious but often missed downsides of poor technology education, transcending just the technology. Want to invest in the magic of Machine Learning (ML)? Who is going to govern the associated ethics and OCM to avoid brand damage and unintended consequences? Want to really understand your customers through data? If you don’t understand technology, how are you going to find the right balance between data governance and deriving value from data when the majority of these issues remain non-technology problems? Signing off on outsourcing? Do you understand whether you are handing away potential competitive advantage, setting back your company by years? Want to maximise the benefit of the cloud? What changes are required to your procurement, hiring, and retention processes? What should an organisation look like that accelerated value delivery? I think you get the point.
Whether or not leaders want to be more engaged and more curious about technology and its implications, legislation might force the issue over time including in terms of taxation, workforce interventions, and sustainability . For instance, South Africa’s code for corporate governance requires a more active Board engagement with technology decisions beyond traditional compliance requirements.
Starting the journey to digital fluency
Fluency requires a combination of learning about relevant topics and having the opportunity to practice what you’ve learned. Our own research indicates that the majority of the top executive MBAs around the world are more suited to training the last century’s leaders, failing almost entirely to address technology, data, and ways of working as critical topics.
I’d recommend a starting point similar to that for a developer or a marketing analyst who needs to upskill. Acknowledge the need to learn. Adopt an approach of “Learn and Be Curious,” setting a tone that great leaders ask questions and are not omnipotent. Go on digital safaris to see what others are doing. Tap into your ecosystem. AWS and partners can dive deep into specific topics whether technology in supply chain, what quantum computing is, how the cloud can improve competitiveness, or what good looks like with new ways of working. Most of all, be excited about the potential you and your organisation can unleash with just a little more knowledge!
 Does your c-suite have enough digital smarts? MIT Sloan Management Review, 2021.
 Digital directors: boost tech savviness of the board, Accenture, 2021.
 Elevating technology on the boardroom agenda, McKinsey, 2012.
 Technology and the Boardroom: A CIO’s Guide to Engaging the Board, Harvard Law School, 2019.
 Lack of skills threatens digital transformation, Gartner, 2020.
 Speech: The Future of Work, Bank of England, 2018.
A conversation on the best practices to maximize business value from the cloud, Mark Schwartz, 2021.
Leading and Innovating with Leadership Principles, Daniel Slater, 2021
Bridging the boardroom’s technology gap, Deloitte, 2017.
Directors and boards – Is your board tech-ready? Egonzender, 2018.
How business leaders can raise their Digital IQ, PWC, 2022.