Four Tips for Helping Boards Navigate Tech

Gaps in board members’ technical knowledge can get in the way of good decision making. Two association tech experts explain how to help board members stay focused on strategy when the conversation turns to technology.

Your board has the ultimate say in the direction your organization takes and the strategy it adopts to move forward. Technology is increasingly important to help organizations reach their goals, so a lack of tech knowledge in the boardroom can be a risk.

Recent research from the National Association of Corporate Directors [PDF] found that corporate board leaders lagged behind in tech knowledge compared with aptitude in leadership, strategic vision, and finance. Thirty-four percent of board chairs were skilled in technology, compared with 95 percent in leadership and 63 percent in both strategic vision and finance.

This lack of understanding can put a damper on strategic decision-making and inhibit innovation, no matter if the organization is for-profit or nonprofit. But a board with the right amount of technology savvy can help guide your organization into the future.

So how do you find a way to get the board on board with tech?

Approach Tech as an Integrated Function

Rick Bawcum, CAE, founder of the association technology consultancy Cimatri, says boards struggle with technology because it’s not usually viewed as a fully integrated department.

“Boards should think about technology as an integrated function of the overall business cycle and include the appropriate technology expertise early and often in the process of defining objectives,” he says. “To put this in context, imagine being handed a 1,000-piece puzzle without the requisite picture of the finished product on the box. The odds of successfully assembling the final product are quite low.”

He compares technology’s role to that of the finance department: It’s a structural pillar supporting the organization’s operations.

“We would not build a budget or create an investment plan without the proper financial guidance and expertise at the table,” he says. The same should be true of technology.

Consider How You Talk About Tech

But just because technology is a key element in how the organization works doesn’t mean that your board has to understand every detail down to the processors sitting in your server room.

Thad Lurie, CAE, vice president of business intelligence and performance for Maritz Global Events and a longtime association executive, urges tech leaders to avoid talking like a techie to boards. Board members may be specialists in their field, but that niche knowledge doesn’t necessarily translate to technology.

Discussing tech matters in purely technical terms can create challenges for CIOs attempting to communicate their needs to the board. Lurie says technologists are often more excited about low-level tech functions than the board might be.

“When you talk about the actual technology, it’s like figuring out how to reprogram your grandma’s VCR again,” Lurie says. “There’s just not going to be a lot of utility there.”

Keep Strategy at the Center

Bawcum says that boards should look to technology teams as a resource for strategic conversations—and that excluding those teams is risky.

“There is no greater barrier or enabler to effective mission delivery than faulty alignment between the goals of the organization and the tactical delivery of the technology team,” Bawcum says. “If the technology experts live in a silo and never participate in the strategic conversations, we will produce camels by committee rather than solutions through strategy.”

Focusing on business goals can help prevent technology discussions from straying from the organization’s mission, Bawcum says. Ultimately, the technology doesn’t matter as much as the strategy that is driving its use.

Offer Clear Examples

When the technology concepts get too distant from board members’ experience and eyes around the table benign to glaze over, an example can be your best friend. Lurie cites the way the pandemic changed the conversation around remote work and disaster recovery planning (DRP).

“I think, until 10 months ago, a lot of organizations were really struggling with remote work arrangements and disaster recovery, because they didn’t have a super-strong why,” Lurie says. “It was like, ‘Well, what do we get out of doing a DRP?’”

When you offer real-world examples like the needs that arose with the pandemic, the conversation gets easier.

“Any organization that has had a data breach, they don’t ask questions that are delaying why they need to spend money on security—they just ask how you do it as well as you possibly can,” he says. “Because they’ve had a real-world experience, and they don’t have to answer the question about why.”

(tcareob72/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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