Funny. Every few years, new topics of a strategic nature are prominent on the agendas of supervisory boards. Currently Covid-19 (‘resilience and flexibility’), gender, (‘diversity’) and IT (especially cybercrime). In previous years compliance, ‘tone at the top’ and integrity. Today’s topics are obviously products of our times, in which we are weighed down by a literally world-shattering pandemic. The topics that were previously given priority were the result of global financial scandals at the time. These were (partly) due to poor compliance and integrity.

These examples highlight an interesting phenomenon: once they have been placed on the agenda, they will no longer disappear. New ones do appear. In this way, the number of important topics that need to be discussed in boardrooms and by boards of supervisory directors is constantly expanding and interconnecting. ESG (Ecological and Social Governance) will be on the agenda as one of the main topics for the coming years. What does all this mean for a supervisory director?

You do not need to be an expert in all of those areas to function well as a supervisory director. You do need to know enough about them to be able to assess whether those topics are being adequately integrated into the business by your directors. An example is IT. What do you need to pay attention to and what do you need to ask? IT processes are about information flows. In electronic form, they are increasingly crucial. This applies to the organization, of course, but also to the board itself.

Even though everything, including the consultations, is gradually becoming electronic, it is still about the content. A simple example. Many boards of supervisory directors nowadays have a paperless environment. The temptation is then great to put a lot of information on the iPad. That is not much use when it comes to effective supervision. So you have to ask the board of directors for summaries and short pieces that provide just enough content for a good assessment.

IT processes are completely intertwined with the organization of the corporation and its culture. Changes in IT therefore change both the organization and the culture of the organization. How that happens is key: is it a deliberate process set up by the board of directors as best as possible, or does the corporation drift along with the consequences of changes in IT processes proposed by the IT department? That is the question that supervisory directors need to be concerned with. They should therefore not only ask the board of directors how the security of data flows is ensured or why cloud solutions are chosen or not, but what the vision of the board of directors is in terms of the relationship between the IT choices within the corporation and the (desired) structure and culture of the organization.

More and structurally working from home or not? Why or why not? What can or must be done electronically and what cannot, and why? When working more from home: how is the mutual human contact maintained? Is there mental support for employees who need it? When working more from home, how is the confidentiality of business information safeguarded?

Recent research by McKinsey indicates that as a result of the pandemic, 45% of corporations in the US have made significant additional investments in technology. Roughly one-third viewed these investments as necessary for continuity in light of the pandemic, but equally from the perspective of improved collaboration and communication between the different echelons the corporation. So that is the way to do it. That composite rather than individual view provides the direction for the questions supervisory directors need to ask. Whatever topic comes up on the agenda, as a supervisory director, always ask “why? And then “why?” again. Like a three-year-old child.

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