Executives don’t have to know much about technology

Executives need digital fluency, which requires of them to cultivate an awareness of technology trends and what they mean for the business.

Johannesburg, 05 Sep 2019
Read time 5min 00sec

Research published in Harvard Business Review reveals that less than 20% of companies have the necessary combination of digital leadership and management skills needed to navigate in today’s hyper-competitive, technology-enabled world. Even more telling is the fact that more than a third of the 432 organisations surveyed were in the digital laggard category, lacking in both digital leadership and management skills. And 75% of these organisations weren’t confident they could overcome the deficiencies.

Executives have often been heard to say: “I don’t know much about IT, but I do know it costs too much.”

But it’s not knowing about technology for non-IT executives that matters, it’s about digital fluency. Digital fluency is not the same as digital expertise; that’s what the technologists are for. But modern executives must understand enough about technology, firstly, not to have the wool pulled over their eyes, and secondly, to make sound decisions about technology and its place in the business model.

Resolving the “wool over the eyes” issue is easy, but it does require a little humility.

Years ago, I was sitting in the office of my tech manager, whom I regarded as one of the most tech-savvy people I had met. His systems manager was explaining some aspect of a problem they were having, and my tech manager stopped him and said: “Louis, I have no idea what you’re talking about.” It was at that moment that I realised that the tech field is so vast and complicated, no one can know it all, or even a substantial portion of it.

So, I adopted a simple strategy: when a techie wasn’t making sense to me, I said so and asked him to explain again in business terms. If he couldn’t, I asked him to come back when he could explain it so that I could understand. I still don’t know much about technology, but I am digitally fluent. My tech team became business fluent.

Digital fluency requires that executives are aware of technology trends and what they mean for the business. It is not difficult. All you need is to be able to search the Internet intelligently. A simple search, titled “latest technologies that will affect business”, will show a list of search results that include artificial intelligence (AI), the Internet of things (IOT) and cybersecurity, among a relatively short list. Then another search, “what does AI mean for business?”, will return a list of articles covering AI for business. And that’s it. A morning’s work will get you up to speed, as far as you need to go, with the latest technology trends.

Don’t get involved in the technical details; you want fluency, not expertise. Another search on “how is the way we do business changing?” will generate articles like “15 trends that change the way you do business” and “6 ways business is changing”. Many articles will be about how technology is changing business, because, well, it is.

Digital fluency also requires that you keep abreast of technologies that may help your organisation perform better. Again, the “search on a phrase” technique works well. For instance, searching on “how technology changes the way we work” will return many useful results.

One can do such searches for “strategy planning software” or “process optimisation software”, and you will become fluent in that topic quickly. Notice that I changed from “technology” to “software” (you could use “solutions” or “tools”) because I am looking for tools that will help aspects of my business improve.

Also, once you have found a tool or trend that you would like to know more about, I find Wikipedia to be a good source of background, history and overviews. One thing you should look at, though, is something called Enterprise Architecture (EA) tools. EA is one of the arcane technology disciplines that has been around since the 1980s, but in the last two years, it has changed dramatically. While the “old” version was used by corporate technologists to plan how their technology would meet business needs, the “new” version is a business planning, simulation and decision support tool. You can model your business, your customer journeys, your capabilities, processes and technologies.

The useful thing here is that you can then conduct “what if” analyses on your model, to assess the effects and financial implications of any move that you may be contemplating. It's sort of like scenario planning on an ongoing basis, but it’s available to everyone in the organisation. Most EA tools are regarded as the single version of the truth.

So, all you need to do is spend a morning searching the Internet, and understanding the basic concepts of technology that can change your business, or that your competition is using, and you’re sorted. See? You are more digitally fluent already.


20% of companies don’t have the necessary combination of digital leadership and management skills.

It’s not about knowing technology, it’s about digital fluency.

The tech field is so vast and complicated, no one can know it all.

When a techie doesn’t make sense, ask him to explain in business terms.

Digital fluency requires that executives are aware of technology trends and what they mean for the business. It is not difficult.

Editorial contacts
Netsurit Shauna Johnston (011) 555 7000 shaunaj@netsurit.com