Board consultant Arne Selvik and non-fiction writer
VIEWPOINT: The more things change, the more they stay the same as before. Also: “We are all in the same boat.”
These are two statements that have lost their validity. The first is a French proverb (Plus ca change, plus c´est la même choose) from the January issue of the turn of the century “The Wasp” in 1849. The second is a metaphor from the Viking Age. They’re not right anymore. They are more self-defeating than entertaining. They provide little help in understanding the reality we live in. While it is true that we only have one planet and one atmosphere, the world has changed into something new, and we are not in the same boat. Both at work and in your free time.
The world as we know it is difficult – if not impossible – to recognize. Fundamental changes occurred in previous centuries, decades, or epochs such as agricultural, industrial and information societies. Through two years of a global pandemic, our work and daily lives have changed more than we could have imagined. Even something as convenient as a “home office” has become a stressful space for busy families with young children.
Bits and chips
Perhaps more than just a pandemic, it is digitization that has changed the world and our lives more than we quickly realized. New services and activities become everyday verbs before we know it. We Google, flip, stream and chat across time zones, age limits, and generation gaps. We change practices and habits, but at the same time our experiences of power and powerlessness change. We silently mourn what was lost and find ourselves in an inverted hierarchy of old knowledge.
Students surpass teachers in digital skills. Young people know more than their parents about digital innovations and features. Parents are battling “password hell” and demand double authentication. The Digipost, Altinn, Patienttsky, Olga and hacked local newspaper scams are not for the faint of heart. For some, it is seen as humiliation and grief because they are no longer in control of daily tasks such as paying for buses or dealing with GPs. The transition from being professionally competent to being assertive and ignorant is a major blow to self-image and self-confidence.
“Never before have so many people thanked so little for so much,” said Churchill of the Air Force’s struggle to prevent the British occupation in 1940. A paraphrase of our new digital reality reads as follows: Never has anything been so small ( such as bits and microchips) means a lot to a lot of people. At the same time, it goes something like this: Rarely do so many people feel so stupid, helpless, incompetent and alienated as they do in digital reality. This is also seen in the world of government.
In a survey of digital challenges on Norwegian boards, Tarjei Alvær Heggernes and I spoke with experienced board leaders, entrepreneurs and leaders. We have looked at international and Norwegian studies of what we call “digital maturity” and asked our informants how the board should relate to what we call digital transformation. In the book The digital world of governance, we have collected a number of examples of good business strategies and models, as well as experiences from «smart cities», digital twins and digital medicine. We offer more than 100 good questions about digitization suitable for board work in small and large companies.
Traditional learning from crafts, schools and universities is about finding the right answer. Preferably with the two lines below. Exams, entrance exams, and certificates are all about «correct answers». Only geniuses like Einstein can answer their secretaries when he points out that he gave last year’s exam questions to this year’s students: That’s true, but this year’s answers are different.
Old learning has some built-in assumptions, which are easy to take for granted. Teachers and professors know more than students. The master surpasses the disciple. The older ones know more than the younger ones. Digitization and the speed of change mean that this has been reversed. It’s been a while since the teens in the family started helping their grandparents set up the TV and PC. It’s been a long time since the “people” in the boardroom were under the control of the IT executive and the “backroom nerds.”
In a classic board article from 1995, Harvard professor Jay W. Lorsch speaks in favor of empowering corporate boards. He has noticed that board members have fallen behind in terms of knowledge and thus power of employee management. We also found this in a survey that was conducted among board members during the pandemic last year.
A global survey of 800 board members shows that most struggle to keep up with three areas. First, the actual board work is reversed. While 5 percent of meetings took place virtually before the pandemic, 95 percent now take place on public online platforms. Second, web solutions are to a lesser extent adapted to the board’s need to encrypt board documents and confidential information. The use of a home office has increased vulnerability to cyber attacks. Third: Almost all respondents acknowledge the need for more digital knowledge and training, but only 58 percent have received such training.
The art of asking good questions
The best way to meet the challenges of digitization – at home and in the boardroom – is to develop the skills and competencies to ask what we call smart naive questions in the board world. This requires first and foremost an acknowledgment that the role in the knowledge society has been reversed. Power has shifted. The digitally competent ones are young, often a bit difficult to approach, speak another language and they hide behind a hood, with earphones plugged in.
The questioning skills we all possess – before school overtook us and taught us to seek answers – presuppose a certain humility. No stupid questions, but it takes courage to show that you’re not afraid to ask. This is how anyone can become a digital phenomenal. Good luck!
“Certified introvert. Devoted internet fanatic. Subtly charming troublemaker. Thinker.”