Accelerating growth in the digital age

Presentation at the Institute of Directors

Steeped in history and elegance, it’s always a delight and privilege to attend events at The Institute of Directors in Pall Mall; a Grade-I listed Regency Crown Estate building designed by the renowned architect, John Nash.

I took my seat and reviewed the day’s agenda for “Accelerating growth in the digital age”: a great line-up of speakers and topics which was sure to be as fast-paced as the title of the conference itself. And yet, as I often reflect, whilst everything moves dramatically faster, the business challenges remain exactly the same.

During the opening of the conference there was a poignant quote from the book, The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, “Everything needs to change, so everything can stay the same.”  And on that note, we were introduced to Paul Coby, CIO of John Lewis.

What matters doesn’t change

With an on-brand video, Paul Coby drove home his message that “What matters, doesn’t change”. People, relationships and core values matter and don’t change over time; the challenge is to translate those values to the modern, digital world.

So how is John Lewis doing that? Well, firstly by investing in innovation through its internal and external programmes, and mixing internal and external talent; and secondly by focusing on the customer experience regardless of the touch point or channel (online, mobile or in-store). Business people tend to think in channels but customers don’t, so the John Lewis team are innovating with that in mind. And the reason for bringing in external talent? Well, it’s about mixing and matching innovative ideas with retail experience, so that real challenges are solved in creative ways.

Cyber security – be vigilant

Next up was Tim Rawlings from NCC Group, talking about Cybersecurity; a topic which many business owners, not surprisingly, face with dread and reluctance.

As we listened to statistics such as ‘every business is targeted by cyber criminals on average 3 times per week’; and facts such as ‘under Anti Money Laundering regulations it is a criminal offence to pay to get your data back’, we are reminded of the external risks that our businesses face and our social responsibilities to keep our clients’ data out of the hands of malicious people.
Whilst ‘what matters doesn’t change’, we are still faced with threats from would-be criminals; sadly their motives remain the same. As they up their game in the digital world, businesses must remain alert. Tim urged us to do two things: firstly, remind everyone on a regular basis to be vigilant when receiving emails – watch out for phishing[1] and be sure your staff know what to do[2]; and secondly, design cyber security into new products from the beginning – don’t leave it to the end when it could be too late.

Keep one eye on the now, and one eye on the distant future

This takeaway from Kate O’Neill, author of Pixels and Place and CEO of KO Insights, resonated with me. As a business analyst and strategist, ‘keeping one eye on the now, and one eye on the future’, is something that I do day-in and day-out. However, it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep one eye on the future because the pace of change is so fast that we frequently do not know nor comprehend what the future will look like even in 5 years’ time.
So, as Kate presented her insights into how to compete in the digital age, it was almost fitting that her presentation was interrupted at 11am GMT for a two-minute silence to remember the nation’s war dead for Armistice Day. With an average of 48.6 thoughts per minute[3], several thousand thoughts were filling the room, in silence.
With the silence observed, the room refocused and Kate resumed sharing her insights:

  • Commit to staying curious, not complacentYour long term and short term view need to co-exist and be in harmony
  • Meaningful growth comes from aligning and integrating your purpose with your values
  • To develop meaningful growth at scale, develop experiences and stay close to the human experience
  • Create powerful experiences but with respect – remember that relevance and discretion are forms of respect
  • Use data to amplify authenticity, gauge alignment and adapt quickly
  • Take cues from cultural trends and align back to your culture

Profit on purpose

Often there is a conflict between value (money) and values (ethics), and Kate raised this in her presentation, highlighting the need to align the two in order to achieve meaningful growth i.e. growth with a purpose beyond profit.

Emma Cerrone, co-founder and CEO of Freeformers, referred to this as “profit on purpose”[4] emphasising that people are very important and a source of competitive advantage. When you focus on people, you can achieve meaningful growth.

Learn to earn

Mark Wright, former winner of the Apprentice and now Director of Climb Online, was most entertaining in the delivery of his story – all the way from how he came from a little village in Australia, to being on the Apprentice and starting Climb Online with financial backing from Sir Alan Sugar. He emphasised that skills are transferable, something I very much believe in, and told us that the best bit of advice he received was that if you want to earn more, you’ve got to learn more.

Mark’s ‘learn to earn’ advice is also supported by research. Apparently CEO’s read on average one book per week which is four to five times the number of books that the average person reads. Despite being dyslexic he took the advice on board (listening to audio books) and quickly tripled his salary.

It’s no longer the survival of the fittest but the survival of the fastest

Jeremy Waite, Marketing Evangelist at IBM, delivered a fascinating presentation. Despite the fact that research shows our attention spans are getting shorter and shorter, Jeremy held the room’s attention with facts and figures, and his own real-life story about how having data at your fingertips can save lives and enabled surgeons to save the lives of his twin daughters, born prematurely but now, amazingly, are 11 weeks old. A reminder that ‘what matters doesn’t change’.

So, in a world where shaving a nanosecond off high-frequency trading algorithms can result in the difference of millions of pounds of profit and every marketer is vying for people’s attention, is it little wonder that 80% of executives feel overwhelmed by the challenges their businesses face?

Even by 2020 the digital universe will be 40 times bigger than it is now. How scary is that? And what impact will artificial intelligence have? Will we really be able to have ‘exciting’ jobs as our existing jobs are taken over by robots like IBM’s Watson? As Jeremy said, we each have a huge responsibility. We must have faith in people and that they will do something good and smart.

Food for thought

After an inspiring day, I was left with the thought: in a world that continues to change at an ever increasing pace, how do we humans keep up without burning out?

I have no doubt that robots will take over most of our jobs as we know them today, so our responsibility now, especially as business leaders, is to work out how to live in such a world where ‘what matters doesn’t change’ and focus on ‘profit on purpose’[4].

Lastly, if you haven’t already listened to Simon Sinek’s Tedx talk on ‘How great leaders inspire action’ then I urge you to do so. Jeremy referenced it in his presentation. Simon starts with the golden circle and the ever powerful question “Why?”


1 Phishing is an electronic attempt, which is made to look like it is from an authentic and trustworthy source, to access people’s sensitive and/or valuable information such as usernames, passwords and credit card details for malicious reasons.

2 What to do if you suspect you have received an email that is a phishing attempt: do not open it, do not click on any links and do not download any attachments. Delete any such emails immediately so that you don’t accidentally do so at a later date.

3 The average person has about 48.6 thoughts per minute, according to the Laboratory of Neuro Imaging at the University of Southern California. For more information click here.

4 The term “profit on purpose” comes from the approach taken by companies with a purpose beyond profit. Paradoxically, such companies tend to make significantly more money than their profit-driven rivals. For more information click here.

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