“Empty Boardroom”, Image by reynermedia
As a result of the lightening-fast rates of change in social media, big data and analytics, and online commerce¹, some large corporations have recently created digital advisory panels (also called “boards”, “councils” and “groups” in place of “panels”), to assist executives in keeping pace with implementing some of the latest technologies. These panels are being patterned as less formal and scaled-down counterparts of traditional boards of directors.
This story was covered in a fascinating and very instructive article in the June 10, 2015 edition of The Wall Street Journal entitled “Companies Set Up Advisory Boards to Improve Digital Savvy” (subscription required, however, the article is fully available here on nasdaq.com). I will sum up, annotate and add a few questions of my own.
These digital advisory panels are often composed of “six outside experts under 50 years old”. In regularly scheduled meetings, their objective is to assist corporate managers in reaching diverse demographics and using new tools such as virtual reality² for marketing purposes. The executives whom the panels serve are appreciative of their “honest feedback”, access to entrepreneurs, and perspectives on these digital matters.
George L. Davis at the executive recruiting firm Egon Zehnder reports that approximately 50 companies in the Fortune 500 have already set up digital advisory panels. These include, among others, Target Corp. (details below) and American Express. However, not all such panels have not continued to stay in operation.
Here are the experiences of three major corporations with their digital advisory panels:
1. General Electric
GE’s digital advisory panel has met every quarter since its inception in 2011. Its members are drawn from a diversity of fields such as gaming and data visualization³. The youngest member of their 2014 panel was Christina Xu. She is a co-founder of a consulting company called PL Data. She found her experience with GE to be “an interesting window” into a corporate environment.
Ms. Xu played a key role in creating something new that has already drawn eight million downloads. It’s called the GE Sound Pack, a collection of factory sounds recorded at their own industrial facilities, intended for use by musicians4. In effect, with projects like this the company is using the web in new ways to enhance its online presence and reputation.
GE’s panel also participated in the company’s remembrance of the 45th anniversary of the first moon landing. Back then, the company made the silicon rubber for the Apollo 11 astronauts’ boots. To commemorate in 2014, the panel convinced GE to create and market a limited edition line of “Moon Boot” sneakers online. They sold out in seven minutes. (For more details but, unfortunately, no more chances to get a pair of these way cool sneakers, see an article with photos of them entitled GE Modernizes Moon Boots and Sells Them as Sneakers, by Belinda Lanks, posted on Bloomberg.com on July 16, 2014 .)
2. Target Corporation
On Target’s digital advisory council, Ajay Agarwal, who is the Managing Director of Bain Capital Ventures in Palo Alto, California, is one of its four members. He was told by the company that “there were ‘no sacred cows’ “. Among the council’s recommendations was to increase Target’s staff of data scientists faster than originally planned, and to deploy new forms of in-store and online product displays.
Another council member, Sam Yagin, the CEO of Match.com, viewed a “showcase” Target store and was concerned that it looked just like other locations. He had instead expected advanced and personalized features such as “smart” shopping carts linked to shoppers’ mobile phones that would serve to make shopping more individualized. Casey Carl, the chief strategy and innovation officer at Target, agreed with his assessment.
3. Medtronic PLC
This medical device manufacturer’s product includes insulin pumps for people with diabetes.5 They have been working with their digital advisory board, founded in 2011, to establish a “rapport” on social media with this community. One of the board’s members, Kay Madati, who was previously an executive at Facebook, recommended a more streamlined approach using a Facebook page. The goal was to build patient loyalty. Today, this FB page (clickable here), has more than 230,000 followers. Another initiative was launched to expand Medtronics’ public perception beyond being a medical device manufacturer.
This digital advisory board was suspended following the company’s acquisition and re-incorporation in Ireland. Nonetheless, an executive expects the advisory board to be revived within six months.
My questions are as follows:
- Would it be advisable for a member of a digital advisory panel to also sit on another company’s panel, given that it would not be a competitor? Would both the individual and both corporations benefit by the possible cross-pollination of ideas from different markets?
- What guidelines should be established for choosing members of such panels in terms of their qualifications and then vetting them for any possible business or legal conflicts?
- What forms of ethical rules and guidelines should be imposed panel members? If so, who should draft, approve, and then implement them?
- What other industries, marketplaces, government agencies, schools and public movements might likewise benefit from their own digital advisory panels? Would established tech companies and/or startups likewise find benefits from them?
- Might finding and recruiting members for a digital advisory panel be a new market segment for executive search firms?
- What new entrepreneurial opportunities might emerge when and if digital advisory panels continue to grow in acceptance and popularity?
1. All of which are covered in dozens of Subway Fold posts in their respective categories here, here and here.
2. There are six recent Subway Fold posts in the category of Virtual and Augmented Reality.
3. There are 21 recent Subway Fold posts in the category of Visualization.
4. When I first read this, it made me think of Factory by Bruce Springsteen on his brilliant Darkness on the Edge of Town album.
5. X-ref to the October 3, 2014 Subway Fold post entitled New Startups, Hacks and Conferences Focused Upon Health Data and Analytics concerning Project Night Scout involving a group of engineers working independently to provide additional mobile technology integration and support for people using insulin pumps.