13 August 2019
Kate Forbes, the public finance and digital economy minister, has been among those singing the praises of Scotland's technology sector. Recently she said: "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 FinTech community of more than 100 companies now operating right across financial services, Scotland is increasingly innovative and dynamic in bringing together financial services and technology."
Forbes is understandably pleased 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 that 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.
Technological innovations have transformed traditional production and business techniques. Almost every sector is being affected, from health and social care to food and drink, and from tourism and finance to the public sector.
Edinburgh's famous financial services industry is already changing, as noted by Forbes. The city is embracing FinTech to deliver better customer outcomes and improve efficiency. But becoming a leading global centre will require the creation of a modern leadership environment.
In addition to FinTech, hundreds of new businesses across other sectors are expected to flow from the £1.3 billion Edinburgh City Region Deal. Governments, universities, and the private sector are targeting investment with the aim of turning 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 is going to require the right skills, not just on the front line but in the boardroom too.
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.
Any successful entrepreneur will tell you the best strategy for growth is to build a team of talented individuals who bring 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 seize opportunities and overcome obstacles. They provide an outsider view of wider issues facing a company and its market. They help monitor performance, steer towards agreed objectives, set pay, scrutinise risk, and audit accounts. And then there's the soft power of a non-exec, 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. I'm sure we all know people right now who are on company boards and who are struggling to deal with emerging issues such as data, Artificial Intelligence, and technology more widely. It's clear we're going to need data-smart non-execs to help new firms flourish.
And 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 the recruitment firm FWB Park Brown, starts in September. We will be attempting to demystify the technology revolution, looking at big data, FinTech, and ethical decision-making in areas such as artificial intelligence.
It's clear that 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 which need them.
This article first appeared in The Times.