Can Executives Over 50 Set an Effective Digital Agenda for Their Companies? (Part 1)

Spend Matters welcomes back David C. Wyld, Professor of Management at Southeastern Louisiana University, for another guest post. 

Can you buy the right tech for your firm if you have an AARP card in your wallet? If you have trouble figuring out your Smart TV, can you set the tech vision for your organization? And if you cling to your corporate-issued Windows 7 and/or a flip phone, can you really understand today’s tech - let alone tomorrow’s?

A recent, wide-ranging report from MIT’s Center for Digital Business and Capgemini Consulting investigated the connections between IT investments and business transformation. The report, entitled Embracing Digital Technology: A New Strategic Imperative, encompassed research findings from an online survey of over 1,500 workers - spanning the range from CEOs to staff personnel.

This report is enlightening in that it delved into why, as the white paper put it bluntly, “companies routinely invest in technology, and too often feel they get routine results.” The white paper discusses some of the structural and personal forces impeding companies from getting clear business benefits from their efforts to digitally transform their businesses. Also part of the paper are profiles of “winners” like Starbucks and Intel, who have proven to be leaders in buying the right tech to meet the needs of both their employees and their customers. These firms have made the digital transformation pay off in terms of increased profits and market leadership.

Yet, there was a consistent theme underlying the forces that impede companies from succeeding at digital investments. And that is age as a “legacy” factor that slows down digital progress in organizations.

While the report’s authors did disclaim that “older people [who] are technology-averse could be, at least in part, stereotyping,” there can be no doubt that younger rank-and-file employees and rising managers see their more senior - both in age and in rank - executives as a significant impediment to making digital progress. Witness some open responses survey respondents offered to the MIT/Capgemini researchers, where the age of a firm’s managers is explicitly noted as a challenge to be overcome:

  • “I sincerely doubt that managers who are over 50 share the same enthusiasm and excitement when it comes to digitizing business segments when compared to a younger person.”
  • “Management is composed of old people from 55 years and above, they know nothing about technology and its benefits and also don’t want to learn.”
  • [Managers are] “dinosaurs [who] don’t understand the [digital] opportunity and are reluctant to change old ways.”
  • “The organization has a long (70 years) history of success ... the need to change is not clear to some members of the old guard (emphasis added).”

The “age disconnect” was also present in actual survey findings in regards to the pace of change:

  • Just over a third of respondents thought that “digital transformation was a permanent fixture on their CEO’s agenda.”
  • While over half of CEO’s and top managers think that the pace of technological change in their organization is proceeding at a fast or acceptable pace, well over two-thirds of lower-level managers and rank-and-file employees think that the pace of change is either slow or very slow.
  • When asked about “the most significant organizational barriers to digital transformation in your organization as a whole,” 40% of the survey respondents cited the lack of a “burning platform” or sense of urgency.

Finally, there was the issue of what the study’s authors termed “technology fatigue.” The executives – primarily men and women of a certain age –  have seen tech fads and crises - everything from the mainstreaming of the Web to Y2K, ERP, and many more.

The second part of this article will be published tomorrow.

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