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We need data‑smart non‑executives for new businesses to flourish

Kate Forbes, the public finance and digital economy minister for Scotland, is among those singing the praises of its technology sector. She said recently: “Scotland has a longstanding international reputation for financial services and is the most important UK financial centre outside London and the South East.

“With a [financial technology] community of more than 100 companies operating right across financial services, Scotland is increasingly innovative and dynamic in bringing together financial services and technology.”

Ms Forbes is understandably pleased that Scotland is embracing a high-tech future — but a word of caution. While there’s no doubt that we’ve spotted the opportunity, there’s a risk we won’t maximise that opportunity if we don’t develop the boardroom leaders we need.

We’re living in an age of disruption and it is starting to affect every area of work. Many jobs already require digital skills. Some jobs will disappear as automation spreads, but whole new areas of work will emerge. The speed of change is threatening many business models. The ability to spot the next big thing is keenly sought after.

Innovations has transformed traditional production and business techniques. Almost every sector is affected, from health and social care to food and drink, from tourism and finance to the public sector.

Edinburgh’s financial services industry is already changing. The city is embracing fintech to improve customer outcomes and efficiency. But becoming a leading global centre will require the creation of a modern leadership environment.

Hundreds of new businesses in other sectors are expected to flow from the £1.3 billion Edinburgh City Region Deal. Governments, universities and the private sector aim to turn the Edinburgh region into the data capital of Europe.

Data and digital skills are going to be key to the best products and services. Transforming Scotland into a digital powerhouse requires the right skills, not just on the front line but in the boardroom, too.

Any successful entrepreneur will tell you the best strategy for growth is a team of talented individuals with a range of perspectives. Access to talent at the senior management and board levels is one of the key drivers of growth, particularly for early stage technology and life sciences companies.

The non-executive director has never been more important. They help businesses to seize opportunities and overcome obstacles. They provide an outsider view of issues facing a company and its market. They help to monitor performance, steer toward agreed objectives, set pay, scrutinise risk and audit accounts. And then there is the soft power of a non-executive director, connecting the business with networks of people and organisations to spread its message and encourage collaboration.

As things stand, there is a shortage of people with the right skills at boardroom level and this could act as a barrier to new companies taking off. We are going to need data-smart non-executives to help new firms to flourish.

Then there’s the question of ethics. The data revolution raises important issues for organisations and public policy. There is a perceived lack of transparency and accountability in the way data is used in the private and public sectors. How products and services are developed using customer data needs careful consideration. As we grow more data-driven businesses, we must consider how best to apply ethical considerations.

At the University of Edinburgh Business School, we are aware of the shortage and are trying to address it. Our annual training programme for non-executive directors in partnership with FWB Park Brown, the recruitment firm, starts in September. We will be trying to demystify the technology revolution, looking at big data, fintech and ethical decision-making in areas such as artificial intelligence.

If our economy’s future is data-driven, we need to upskill a new generation for our boardrooms. It is crucial for Scotland’s future that we have the right people with the right skills on the boards of the companies that need them.

Source: The Times

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