A decade of smartphones – can we agree digitalization is here to stay?


We’ll hit the ten-year anniversary of the smartphone in 2017. With no signs that the trend toward digitalization will slow any time soon, there’s no reason for supervisory boards not to hop on the bandwagon.

I was reading an article recently that referenced the approaching ten-year anniversary of the iPhone. I was shocked – a whole decade of our lives has been spent in the smartphone era? I looked it up, and sure enough, January 9, 2007 marked the day Steven Jobs unveiled the very first iPhone – an epic milestone that we’ll reach right at the beginning of 2017.

Whether we love or hate the smartphones that have become an integral part of our lives, there is no denying that the devices have had a disruptive effect on par with the invention of electricity or the automobile. The idea of flipping a switch and illuminating a room, or of hopping in a box with wheels and driving to a distant city in just a few hours, was once a mind-bending concept. Neither warrant a second thought today.

The same can be said for many activities we undertake on our smartphones. A video chat with a friend thousands of miles away? Conducting business from the beach? Switching on those once-revolutionary lights before you’ve even arrived at home? All unremarkable events in the smartphone era, which would not have been possible ten years ago.

The pace of progress

Many of us take the innovations associated with the smartphone for granted, but the disruptive effect of digitalization has not permeated all aspects of our lives equally.

Our kids may be at the forefront of the digital revolution, but I’m afraid to say our supervisory board members are often those lagging behind. “Tranformation 2,” as the drastic shift toward digitalization is known, has opened many new avenues for companies to operate more effectively and more intelligently, but these concepts must be grasped by the supervisory board as well.

Even the biggest technophobes have heard of ‘big data’ – the vast array of information available to just about anyone who is willing to look. That includes investors and managers, who are well on their way to grasping the relevance of big data and putting it to use to inform their investing and managerial decisions.

It is therefore not only wise, but an absolute duty, for supervisory board members to keep up with this trend. Companies and investors thrive on remaining innovative – why would it be different for the supervisory board? If a 12-person supervisory board only contains one ‘digitally-thinking’ member, won’t that person’s expertise be marginalized instead of embraced?

Embracing digitalization – not if, but when

Every single person occupying a position on a supervisory board in 2017 – an entire decade after the world was introduced to the smartphone – needs to grasp the basic concepts of the cyberworld we live in.

This is not simply a matter of appearing to be up-to-date on the latest trends – this is about fulfilling a mandate of observing and advising based on the information available, which is increasing in volume and ease of access.

If investors and managers are accessing and assessing information 24/7 on handheld devices, supervisory board members need to be able to do this as well – “cyber resilience” is not just a buzzword, it’s a requirement of any company operating in today’s digital world.

A tool like any other

Fortunately, feeling at ease in this world is something that can be learned. I am by no means a digital native, and I was not among those first in line to buy an iPhone in 2007, but over the years I have come to see digital technology simply as a useful tool that helps me work more effectively and intelligently.

Staying on the cutting edge of the digitalization trend is an intimidating prospect that can be left to the pros in Silicon Valley as far as I’m concerned, but learning to use a new business tool is something we’ve all done in our careers – and lived to tell the tale.

I encourage supervisory board members who feel left behind by global digitalization to take steps to brush up their knowledge. This is no different than honing any other skill that has been neglected for a little too long – if you had a rough day on the golf course, you’d make time to hit the driving range to work on your swing.

I’m not much of a caddy, but I’d be happy to help with pointers on how a supervisory board member can learn and take advantage of all the opportunities available in the digitalized world. Feel free to drop me a line.