BBC Capital columnist and corporate governance expert, Lucy Marcus, caught up with Jonathan Zittrain, professor of law and computer science at the Berkman Center, Harvard University at Davos 2016.
Be more ready to advertise ignorance.
BBC Capital asked him how companies can tackle the challenges posed by the ever-evolving digital revolution. Hint: it's all about dialogue. Edited excerpts follow.
Q: A lot of the executives that I've been talking to have been saying that one of the biggest challenges for their businesses is around digital. What does that mean? What is it that businesses need to be thinking about?
A: “ I think if you're on a board, or you're a CEO of a meat and potatoes company, technology offers more than its usual share of buzzwords [to comprehend]… like “block chain” or even “social media”, “mobile”, or “cyber security”. Certainly we see [some people] wanting to say “there's this huge threat [to your business] here, you're going to miss the train or you're going to be vulnerable. Write a cheque and this could all go away”.
It's really important for board members and executives to immerse a little in that technology — enough to know the [right] questions to ask when approached by the next person, internal or external, who says “we cannot afford not to do X” [with technology].
So many of the questions that are really important, and concrete, and immediate… are not completely answered. There's nobody to whom you can write a cheque and actually feel like […] you're on top of things.
Q: How much can you teach someone about [the digital side of business] so that they're competent enough to at least to understand when something’s “not right”?
A: I think enough to be able to confidently ask questions. And not worry that you're going to look ignorant. [You can teach someone] To encourage a dialogue between board members and those presenting. [A situation ] Where the presenter doesn't think that the aim of the game is to come away with no questions [and] with everybody thinking everything is fine.
Q: Because no one knows all the answers?
A: I think that's right. Even looking for opportunities where a company that is not thinking of itself and isn't viewed as primarily a technology company, might be able to ask, ‘is there a way we could take a leadership role here in the development of the technology, as a pioneer user, as somebody giving back’, which a company might not normally think of.
Q: So, the takeaway is, when you're trying to seek information, you should be learning how to ask the questions better and to understand the answers. But, not think that there's ‘an end-all and be-all’ answer to all these issues?
A: Yes. Be more ready to advertise ignorance. And, be more ready to accept answers and encourage answers that are incomplete.
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Lucy Marcus is an award-winning writer, board chair and non-executive director of several organisations. She is also the CEO of Marcus Venture Consulting. Follow her Davos coverage for BBC Capital here and on Twitter @LucyMarcus.