So once again, everyone was sat around the big table in the conference room on the top floor. It took over a quarter of an hour to deal with the issue at hand. And that issue was changing the time of a scheduled board meeting. Ten well-paid individuals had just spent valuable time feverishly flicking through their diaries – an activity that could have taken just a few minutes with the help of a digital service.

How is it still acceptable to cheerfully defend a fine leather diary against a digital calendar and claim that a Mont Blanc pen is the best tool for a to-do list? How is it that notes and documents are still written locally on each personal computer or, even worse, by hand and disappear in old pads and dusty folders?

The question might seem banal, but it is about focusing on activities that add value rather than wasting time on administration or looking for information. Many minutes per day, perhaps even full-time jobs, could be saved if all the meetings were booked via Doodle instead of in never-ending rounds of e-mails. If everyone used Dropbox to make their documents accessible, even to external partners. If everyone installed smart e-mail filters to sort the wheat from the chaff. If Evernote was used to organise notes, Scannable to save business cards directly into a contact list, Pipes to quickly summarise long texts, Instapaper to collect articles worth reading and make them available to colleagues with a thirst for knowledge. Or if Slack was made the company’s social hub for discussing new ideas and obtaining immediate feedback. The digital economy does not allow important information to be held by a single individual, where it cannot be shared, searched or discussed. It is easy both to misinterpret and to lose the scribblings of a traditional pen.

In an industrial context, potential efficiencies and automation of working processes are defined in detail, with little scope for the individual to express preferences for artisanal working methods. In the service sector, within management teams and administrative units, the situation is very different.

It is time to hack the office worker. In addition to saving time, a digitalised workplace can help with a move away from silos, traditional hierarchies and rigid processes that were suited to a different era. A digital toolbox makes it easier to share knowledge and networks, develop new ideas and collect data for complex decision-making. As companies make increasing use of a flexible workforce with a large proportion of freelancers and distance workers, technology is needed to bridge the physical gap and enable joint discussions, exchanges of ideas and feedback.

According to Quora Research, a substantial 77 percent of young employees in tech-based start-ups are open to ways of working that challenge existing norms. The equivalent figure is only 19 percent among employees at more traditional companies.

It is not difficult for either an individual or a company to carry out an analysis of the worst time wasters and distractions, and then source a suite of digital tools that provide a cure for the chaos – all it takes is the will. Then there are all the digital solutions that open up possibilities for a new way of working. To quote Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and CEO, conventional businesses use new technology to simplify what they already do, start-ups use the technology to challenge the way everything is done.

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Digitalization has emerged as a top priority on executive management’s agenda these days. A study published in the Harvard Business Review reveals that two-thirds of companies in the United States and Europe now place a strong focus on digitalization. At the board level, interest is weaker. Just under one-third indicates that digitalization is a priority issue. Previous studies have shown that one-fifth of the board of directors have some sort of digital background, but the 2016 Amrop study shows that except for tech companies, the figure is just 8 percent. We see a gap between Management ambitions and Board priorities —one that poses problems. According to Russell Reynolds, companies that have succeeded in closing the gap between Board and Management to share a common digital agenda and a unified technology approach, show 9 percent higher growth, 27 percent better profitability and 12 percent greater market value.

Corporate digital transformation becomes a crucial decision for the board when existing revenue streams must be deprioritized to create space for tomorrow’s business deals. Take Microsoft, which now focuses on the cloud computing business to the benefit of its traditional software. Similarly, boards must give priority to growth investments as new sustainable digital revenues appear on the horizon, such as when Netflix abandoned its in-store DVD distribution, going from bricks to clicks for a rapid global expansion of live streamed content.

When the world is digitalized, the board must follow. Most boards are used to discussing the fundamental changes in corporate organization and work approaches, but on the other hand we see little innovation in their own work. Today’s board agendas are surprisingly similar to those of a century ago. According to McKinsey, boards spend up to 70 percent of meeting time looking through the rearview mirror and dissecting compliance, quarterly, and audit reports. Digital transformation promises a higher tempo than infrequent board meetings. When the markets become more volatile and the executive team is struggling to resolve its immediate challenges, it’s all the more important for boards to keep looking out toward the horizon. Strategy meetings can’t take place annually — people need real-time information, ongoing strategy discussions and more frequent evaluations.

Solving these increasingly complex issues requires creative problem-solving and a more diversified set of approaches — even in the board room. As the number of technical issues grows, so does the need for continuous skill development for board directors. More experts instead of generalists will need to step up to the plate. External specialists are becoming increasingly important in preparing for tough decisions.

So, what tools do boards have at their disposal for managing digital transformation? More and more US companies are adding a digital transformation committee to prepare for decision-making, involving deep-dives of technological changes as well as analyses of policies and incentive schemes to make sure they are promoting digital development.On the market, digital platforms are also being launched to simplify an agile approach to board activities. The board of the future needs digital control systems, much like a cockpit with a complete overview of relevant real-time data.

As industry after industry faces the challenges of new market conditions, boards have got to future-proof their companies. Most businesses aren’t structured to deal with the unknown, and the pace of change accelerates, an increased intensity is needed also in the board work. Synergies between the outlook of the board and the capacity of the organization are needed, to empower companies to implement courageous and transformational changes of their business models.

Sara Öhrvall

Photo: Trey Ratcliff, Photo Walk on Antarctica

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