Directors train to speak like the geeks

If you don’t know HTML from CSS, digital opportunities may be missed

Hannah Prevett Sunday Times 2 June 2013

Kathryn ParsonsCode breaker: every business has been affected by technology, says Kathryn Parsons

When a company sees its future as digital, the top brass need to be in the loop. WPP, the global marketing agency, has sent 250 of its senior staff on one-day courses to teach them computer programming skills.

The aim is not for WPP’s chairman to build the company website, but for the board and other executives to gain a better grasp of the impact that ever-evolving technology is having on the organisation.

“We need all our leaders to have an understanding of how technology is changing business,” said Mark Read, who is the director of strategy and also chief executive of WPP Digital. “It’s not just affecting marketing. It’s changing the whole way you interact and deal with customers.”

He explained the thinking behind the one-day course. “We have to distinguish between being able to code and having an understanding of how you code. We want to give our more senior people an understanding of what’s possible, rather than to teach them how to code.”

The course was provided by Decoded, a company set up by Kathryn Parsons, who won the New Generation prize at the 2013 Veuve Clicquot Business Woman awards. She said businesses across all sectors were struggling to get to grips with the digital agenda — even technology companies.

“Every business has been affected by digital,” said Parsons. “It’s not just traditional businesses and boards that come to us. We’ve had tech companies such as Microsoft and Google too. To be amazing at your role, let’s say as a board director or a leader of a business or department, doesn’t require you to be a programmer. But to navigate this sea change and how it’s impacting your business and day-to-day life, you need to be literate and quite skilled at tech, and not be afraid of it.

“You don’t want to be sitting quietly while thinking you don’t understand what everyone is saying to you.”

Lee Chant, managing director of Hays’ IT department, agreed that being digitally savvy at board level can only be a good thing.

“It’s the people who make the business decisions for the organisation who need to know what it means and how it works,” he said. “Are they going to be expected to adapt and change their skill sets completely to become coders? No, I don’t think so.

“But is there going to be a plethora of people beneath the boardroom who may wish to become more involved on the technology side? It’s certainly a possibility,” he said.

Encouraging employees and directors to become more digitally literate helps to create common ground in an organisation, according to Harper Reed, a technology consultant who was chief technology officer for President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign.

“This is all about trust,” he said. “Often there is an inbuilt lack of trust between technical folk and non-technical folk. You have people on both sides who are very smart, but they aren’t able to execute because they can barely communicate. Their vocabularies are different.

“It takes just a little bit of work to give people the vocabulary to be able to have value-adding conversations and increase the trust that will help more innovation to happen.”

It’s important that the work begins now, Reed added. “A lot of companies are waking up from a slumber and realising that a huge part of their organisation is powered by technology, and they don’t have a significant level of technology expertise on their board or in their exec teams.”

One way to approach this gaping hole in knowledge is to educate the chief executive and leadership team. “What this means is CEOs will now be able to understand when they talk to the programmers,” Reed said. “The second way is to hire a person who understands the CEO’s world.” This means hiring a skilled futurologist or technologist to marry the business imperatives with those of the technology department and act as an interpreter between the two.

WPP’s Read said it was important that boards did not feel threatened by technology and were able to seize the opportunities offered by the shift towards a digital economy.

“It’s an opportunity if you take advantage of the transformation and it’s a threat if you don’t, so having a more digitally savvy workforce at all levels is critical,” he said.

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