September 2019, article published originally in El Periódico de Catalunya
Should the CEO know about technology?
Dozens of hours of in-depth interviews with about 50 chief executives and advisors of important companies, hundreds of informal conversations held in different forums, and thousands of pages read of research by other colleagues from the world of academia.
Today I will share what I’ve learned during my research into the following questions: Should or shouldn’t a CEO know about technology? How deep should his/her knowledge be? There are two schools of thought on this.
On the one hand, the “No, a CEO should be a generalist” and on the other hand, “Yes, he should know a lot since the world has become too digital and without technology you’re not going anywhere.” I believe both angles are right and wrong at the same time.
CEOs should be able to understand the implications of technology, but it’s not necessary that they know about technology itself
A series of preliminary considerations will help answer the question:
- The digital world pulls you in like it to or not. The online environment will be increasingly present.
- This doesn’t mean that as CEO you should drive yourself crazy over the subject, but understand what roads, what options we will be capable of creating thanks to technology.
- Let’s not confuse disruption with evolution. Most companies need to evolve not disrupt.
- Both disruption and evolution usually begin with dissatisfied clients (with different degrees of dissatisfaction), not with technology, because when the wise point to the client, the fools look at technology.
- Organizations that truly understand digital transformation know that they should work on aspects such as capabilities, change, corporate culture, agility or restructuring of teams, but not technology.
Coming back to our question, the answer is simple: CEOs should have a clear vision of how to work with clients and, additionally, know about technologies but not about technology. Meaning, they should be able to understand the implications that artificial intelligence, IoT, algorithms, virtual reality, robotics, and so on, have for the company. Because it is through these technologies that they will be able to articulate a useful value proposal for whatever markets (clients) they want to serve.
Almost no company do nothing with their executive committee so that they learn about technologies
Hence, CEOs needn’t have technical knowledge (nobody is asking them to be data scientists or programmers), but they should be able to envision what they can do with these technologies to evolve or disrupt their company, that is, transform it. This requires a continuous learning process.
And here’s the kicker: practically 100% of the companies I’ve interviewed tell me they do nothing (or next to nothing) with their executive committee so that they learn about technologies. At best, they learn about tools and tend to ask lower-level employees to use them. We want to transform companies, but I don’t see that happening unless we transform top management. Because companies are still people.