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Digital Age(ism) (IRM55)

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As our industry matures so, obviously, do many of the people working in it. How do we protect the digital age from ‘digital ageism’? A ‘mature’ Ian Jindal considers.

At the recent InternetRetailing Conference we reflected upon the growth of our industry and the transformations in retail driven by ecommerce – and upon the transformations to come. I was struck that the language of change and disruption had in many areas started equating youth with change. Several eminent speakers – when talking of their drive to embed digital thinking within their executive boards – were focused on bringing in “young people” to lead the transformation.

Now, it’s a long while since I’ve been called ‘young’ (without sarcasm) and so perhaps I’m sensitive to age-related matters. However, I’ve long written in this column about the digital attitudes and skills needed throughout the organisation. I have not previously considered these skills through an age-based filter.

There’s no inherent benefit of youth that is not also a benefit of age (energy, vitality, skin elasticity, daring); and no benefit of age that doesn’t also enhance youth (experience, wisdom, expertise, practice, perspective). Even listing these attributes shows how trivial is their allocation to life-span.

Where a board seeks a “young person” to “be digital” then it’s a sign that the existing members feel themselves not to have understood or embraced digital working and opportunity and they’re ‘in-sourcing’ it to a colleague. As I mentioned last issue, it’s inconceivable that a Marketing Director would eschew numeracy, and boggling were a CFO to claim not to understand customers. All senior people need to embrace and deploy expertise across many domains simultaneously.

It’s true that many of the disruptive changes we see in our business apply to younger customer segments: those millennials whose life has been post-digital and whose peers reinforce and amplify digitally-enhanced experiences and expectations. Theirs is an important voice economically, now and for the future (until the next disruption, of course). That behaviours are ‘observable’ in an age group does not make that group the best interpreters of those behaviours. Equally, no one member of a cohort should have to carry the weight of representation – that way lies sexism, racism and other corrosive forms of thinking, generalisations and false equivalences.

A modern, multichannel board needs to be as blind to age as it is to gender, race, ethnicity and gender identification. This is not a liberal point, but a rational one. A person’s worth needs to be judged on performance and contribution, not the attributes above.

The digital skills – of experimentation, flexibility of perspective, test and optimise, responsiveness and creativity – need to be found in your CMO, CFO, CEO, Brand Director and Chair irrespective of the age or gender of each. Equally, the ability to synthesise and build on experience, the ability to change position in response to facts not prejudice, to develop deep expertise in multiple areas, are useful skills after a lifetime of experience or in one’s second job.

Some skill areas are new. When I trained as a Chartered Accountant many years ago (a bit of a shock after an English degree) there was no role of Ecommerce Director, no CIO, no Digital Marketing Director. Role-holders in these new skills are often younger since they’ve created the role and the capabilities based upon new digital technologies. Their young age should be no bar to Board membership. Equally, older age should not preclude a flexible, learning, curious embrace of digital (after all, consider how many revolutions and transformations an older Board member will have survived and exploited). There are two dangers of having a ‘board member responsible for new stuff’: the first danger is that the board as a whole shirks its responsibility to acquire skills; the second is that the tenure of the new board member is limited by the period their colleagues remain clueless.

As we seek to embed digital capability, thinking and performance throughout the organisation we must do so in a fashion that is rigorous, open and performance-focused. This requires us to develop clear performance metrics and development plans for the new digital skills, as well as focusing upon the transfer, adaptation and development of existing ‘traditional’ skills.

As the digital age matures, so too must our adoption of the required skills and behaviours. There is no place for ‘isms’ within the leadership of our multichannel businesses, just ‘ility’ - ability, flexibility, agility. Winning organisations will show that the only basis for discrimination is talent and capability within a structure that’s open to all to succeed.

What do you think on the topic of board-level talent and leadership? We’d love to hear your views. Contact [email protected]
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