How Boards can Help the CEO Face Digital Transformation

Digital & IT


In our increasingly digitized economy, information technology (IT) has become fundamental to support, sustain and grow organizations. Successful organizations leverage the digital innovation potential but also understand and manage the risks and constraints of technology. Previously, governing boards could delegate, ignore or avoid IT decisions, but the disruptive new technologies are increasingly being felt at board level. Emerging research calls for more board level engagement in enterprise governance of IT and identifies serious consequences for digitized organizations in case the board is not involved.

In this context, we recently co-created a research program on the what, why and how non-executive boards can take up their accountability in governing the digital assets. The partners in this research program are KPMG Belgium, Samsung Belgium, CEGEKA Belgium, the University of Antwerp and Antwerp Management School. 

In a recent Harvard Business Review article (“Boards Can’t Wait for CEOs to Prioritize Digital Change”, HBR, September 2017), Ram Charan complements the findings of our research with some interesting proposed actions boards can take to help the CEO in the digital transformation challenge. We are happy to share these tips with you.

1. Make the other board members aware of the consequences of digitization

The board should free up time in the board’s agenda to address, with the CEO, the potential benefits and risks of digital transformation for their organization or sector. Such a shared session can create a sense of urgency. If required, external experts can be brought it in to make the points.

2. Be sure to have the right CEO

From the previous point, the necessity to have the right CEO becomes very clear. Make sure your CEO sees digital transformation as a challenge that brings chances and not only problems.

3. Encourage the CEO to enlist whatever expertise he or she needs

It could be that the CEO struggles with imagining the exponential growth a digital platform can create. He or she needs to reimagine how the company could be rebuilt around a digital platform. That imagination can be spiked by adding some new people to the mix.

4. Prepare to protect the CEO against backlash

Digital expertise is expensive. Companies can expect to see operating expenses rise. Therefore, it is important for the CEO to convince stakeholders that the change will be profitable in the long run. Boards should help their CEOs with stating this and think of incentives to reach the required KPI’s.

5. Beware of cold feet

Some employees and board members will support a certain plan until the actual due date comes close. At that moment they will start to have doubts about taking the leap. The board should take up these concerns and regularly evaluate them.

The CEO can make or break a successful digitization. But a CEO who stands alone can’t do a thing. He or she must be supported by his board and experts in the field of digitization.

Read our research briefings, toolkits and case studies on this subject