Why your board needs a digital non executive director (or advisor)

Ben Hart
Digital transformation is a multifaceted discipline. It requires a business to set not only a clear direction to realise the gain present in the digital economy, but also to protect against the threats from digital disruption.

Digital disruption will displace approximately 40 percent of incumbent companies

(Digital Vortex, Global Centre for Digital Business Transformation, June 2015) Boards (for the most part) recognise the need to change. You can’t open a magazine in marketing, business or economics without reference to digital. Or at least a nod to the might of the digital first unicorns who, with comparatively vastly fewer assets and headcount, have achieved valuations of billions often surpassing their old world counterparts.

At the same time any senior board member is likely to go home and witness the entirely different behaviours of their children and their friends. Entirely different creatures, digital natives. This generational difference is typified (much as those before) by rejecting much of what their parents have built in true rebellious style. They are able and empowered to be the founders of the next high growth startup, digitally centred spring or movement. Or perhaps simply trading the currency of online memes and selfies on snapchat whilst building online profiles for better or worse as a natural course of growing up.

These creatures are the future customers and stakeholders for any board.

According to PWCs 19th annual survey of chief executives, 90% are changing how they use technology to deliver on wider stakeholder expectations

PWC annual CEO survey 2016. With the threat apparent, the need pressing and the journey often uncertain any business looking to survive in a more connected and digital future must ensure it is leading the change.

A mere 1 per cent of NEDs at Europe’s top 100 companies have proven digital experience compared with 8 per cent in the US

(Russell Reynolds Associates) It’s a fair observation that most boards would not describe themselves as digitally fluent let alone from digital backgrounds. Clearly there is a significant disjoint in the need to lead with pace, vigour and agility into a digital future and knowledge to do so at board level. Here’s why I believe the boards of the 60% of companies that will not be entirely displaced by digital disruption will have strong and competent digital representation around the board table.


Digital is such a broad field and it neither shows no sign of slowing down let alone becoming less complex. In fact the premise exists that digital is now a wholly integrated business function, or at least should be. Yet at the same time the digital narrative often requires translation into the parlance of the board.


So what does it all mean? The investment will be significant, the market place changing, the data inviting yet hugely complex. Of course it’s not all new, we’ve been using sharepoint at work for decades, internal communications can and should use the most effective channel. Marketing is now all about the digital customer (because pretty much everyone is). Culture is required to be explorative, ready to experiment (and fail) and quick off the mark. Gaining an accurate and concise understanding at the top and the bottom of the P+L as to what this all adds up to is crucial for any board to be able to undertake informed decisions that achieve strategic advantage as opposed to hesitation.

Inspiring exploration

Within such a large scope any set plan is likely too rigid. Being able to constructively challenge direction from the benefit of experience and lessons learnt is crucial to hone advantage. Everyone that will survive is setting out to leverage and accelerate, the best plans are the ones based on the best knowledge and experience in market. Hiring a dream digital team gets you so far, however there’s a lot of the best talent in the digital market that simply does not want a salaried role, is pursuing portfolios, and can make the 5% difference. The digital non executive should inspire the board and business to continually explore, always seeking yet never being comfortable that the best has been achieved. Agitants, explorers themselves, provoking new thinking and tabling challenge to create the very best value exchange between business and customer.

Cultural Catalysts

For a business to truly succeed in digital the culture, energy, pace and people must be fit for the journey. Rarely is a business’s culture disjoint from that displayed and expressed at the top. The digital non executive should be a catalyst for inspiring a digitally first culture full of sharing, collaboration and insight.

Bold new structures

The board itself in many ways is the ultimate product of a hierarchical organisation. In itself not wrong however potentially a dating paradigm when digital provides for cross functional working, nodal structures, empowered leaders throughout the organisation whiledigital transparency removes some of the more onerous elements of governance.The digital non executive should legitimise and enable the changing nature of organisation structure and therefore the nature of the board - no easy task and to be successful the rest of the board need to be not only receptive but also hungry for evolution.


The digital transformation journey is neither easy nor should it be underestimated. The digital non executive should have a role of challenging convention and provoking change. This challenge, when framed against business objectives and achievability, and at a stretch for pace, is something the entire board needs to get behind. Together, a compelling mix of business skills, governance, strategy and accountability provide a heady mix for the market growth and protection.

What Next?

I’m currently seeking 2 digital non executive roles. Where the appetite exists and the skills around the table are transferable, open and shared I believe I can bring the right experience, skills and ability to help an empowered and disrupted organisation win in digital into the future. Ben Hart is the founding partner of business futures practice, Atmosphere. Ben teaches at a business school, mentors a small handful of high growth potential start-ups and speaks publicly variously around the stuff that he is passionate and interested in. This includes brand engagement both with external customers and internal teams, innovations driving market disruption, and high performance structures for a more networked and connected future. A strong entrepreneurial streak is demonstrable looking back over the preceding 10 years which were spent founding and building digital agency business. During this time, Ben has variously led digital strategy for brands including LloydsTSB, Honda, Pernod Ricard, The Post Office, AMEX and plenty more. "I love my work. I also love working with the passionate and talented people I am lucky to know and share a vision of the future with."

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