Big firms struggle with digital

27 June 2012

NEW YORK: Only a handful of America's biggest companies can be considered as "highly digital", with Apple, Google and Oracle among the leading operators in this space at present, according to a study.

Jeffrey Rayport, of Castanea Partners, a private equity firm, and Tuck Rickards, of Russell Reynolds Associates, the recruitment firm, assessed the new media capabilities of firms in the Fortune 500.

Only nine were "highly digital", defined as having major business operations enabled by this medium, generating major revenues via this route, boasting board members expert in this channel, and holding a "transformational" reputation among their peers.

Moreover, just seven members of the Fortune 100 met these criteria, and a modest 13% had boards of directors that were well-schooled in this field.

"It's no news to confirm that technology companies - such as Amazon, Apple, Cisco, Dell, HP, Google, Intel, Microsoft, and Oracle - have boards awash in digital expertise," Rayport and Rickards wrote in the Harvard Business Review.

Numerous other players in a diverse range of sectors were "on their way" to achieving this status, like Procter & Gamble, the consumer goods giant, and PepsiCo, the food and beverage group.

Walmart, the retailer, Berkshire Hathaway, the conglomerate, FedEx, the delivery firm, and Ingram Micro and Sysco, the distribution companies, also came in among this group

"You might focus exclusively on company leadership, but, of course, boards matter: they provide strategic counsel to the CEO and, crucially, they plan for CEO succession," Rayport and Rickards added. "To guide companies in innovative ways, boards must know what innovative looks like."

They added that the "tide is turning", with Meg Whitman, once CEO of eBay, having assumed this role at Hewlett-Packard, and Ron Johnson, who previously led Apple's retail operations, now the CEO of JC Penney, albeit with mixed results thus far.

More broadly, Disney has named Sheryl Sandberg, of Facebook, to its board, while Walmart has done the same for Marissa Mayer of Google, and eBay has tapped Katie Mitic, also of Facebook, in the same way.

Some chief executives are also going in the opposite direction, with Bill Ford, executive chairman of the Ford Motor Company, taking a director position of eBay, as has Bob Iger, of Disney, at Apple.

"Given the increasing influence, even dominance, of social and mobile technologies, we expect to see a similar evolution take place in more "unlikely" sectors: health care, industrial goods, natural resources," Rayport and Rickard concluded.

Data sourced from Harvard Business Review; additional content by Warc staff