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Boardroom Conversations for the Future

In drafting this piece about what the Fourth Industrial Revolution (also known as 4IR) means for us as boards and directors, I am inspired by this tweet of a friend and colleague of mine, Richard Mulholland:

The point is for directors to consider the idea of 4IR as potentially more of an evolution. The challenge is that so many boards throughout history have missed the point around what is happening in the world and ultimately the impact on their businesses.

Lift Your Eyes

I believe that 4IR begs a discussion around boardroom performance and how directors and boards ensure that time is being focused away from the immediate to what is happening next year, in five years’ time, in 20 years’ time and so on. Let us consider some examples.

If you are in the fishing industry, are you as a board having a conversation around topics such as those highlighted in Netflix’s Seaspiracy? Do you discuss whether you agree with, disagree with or are ambivalent to the movie’s content? What is the board’s position on it? Are you thinking about the impact of environmental change on the sea and fishing stocks, and what the implication could be for your industry in 10 years’ time?

If you are in the automotive industry, are you as a board discussing what fundamental changes the move from petrol- and diesel-driven cars to electric vehicles could make? Those of us based in Africa may think that it is so far off that it is irrelevant to our business. On the other hand though, it was only 30 years ago that South Africa became the birthplace of prepaid cell phones thanks to essentially jumping the transition from a home-based telephone network to focusing predominantly on mobile (a product of its citizens’ severe lack of accessibility to credit at the time).

Look Beyond Tomorrow

I am not trying to scare you as a director around what the future may bring (I think there is enough going on in the world to do that and to give you that perspective). I am rather encouraging you to lift your eyes to look at what the Fourth Industrial Revolution – or evolution, as it may be – could do and will do to your business.

In my experience in the boardroom and in the boardrooms that I have the privilege to observe, boards tend to be too focused on today and tomorrow i.e. getting the job done, getting through today’s agenda, moving on to the next meeting with a business that they need to get involved in or save, or sorting out operational problems. This leaves little or no time for looking further ahead.

Are you looking beyond tomorrow? Is a blue-sky discussion regularly on your board’s agenda?

While doing this every month (or at every board meeting depending on how often you have them) is not necessarily practical or even possible, looking at the big picture is vital: Discuss what it is and what could fundamentally change the business.

Boards must also be prepared to have the discussion about what happens if their industry is destroyed: What product could displace us as a business? What technology that we use is more than 30 years old and, therefore, ripe for change? What paradigm is our business based on that could be challenged as the world goes through further evolution?

Keep an Eye Out

My recommendation for any director is to take time as an individual every month to read about your industry. Then, when time is allocated in the boardroom to have the blue-sky discussion, do not allow fellow directors to say that what you share is irrelevant or will never happen. After all, the whole purpose of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (or evolution) discussion is to talk about things that seem absurd, different, unlikely or impossible.

Often, it is best to start this discussion away from the boardroom table – rather when on the walkabout, having a look in the factory or talking to other people in your business. Learn from others’ insights and experiences at the coalface.

Whether you consider 4IR to be true or not, one thing we can be certain of is that the world will change. Is your board and business giving enough thought to whether it is changing fast enough to remain relevant?

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