Digital, talent and automation: what matters for executives in 2021 ?

The PWC’s 24th CEO Survey gives us a snapshot of the concerns of executives in 2021. Some topics are obvious, such as pandemic or digital, others are surprisingly under-represented, such as climate change, and in general, the survey lacks the perspective of other years.

Every year I look forward to the publication of the PWC CEO Survey which gives us an analytical and exhaustive view of the issues and concerns of companies through the eyes of executives from different sectors around the world. Given the current context, I was looking forward to the 2021 edition with great interest.

In 2021, the economic situation trumps the vision

The report covers a large number of subjects and I will limit myself here to those that interest me closely, but it is not surprising to see that, unlike in previous years, the analysis is much less rich in vision on the major trends of the economy and, on the contrary, more anchored in the short-term reaction to the crisis that has been hitting us for more than a year now.

Health crises, cyber security, over-regulation, political and economic uncertainties, misinformation…all very pragmatic topics that are either bursting onto the scene this year or gaining in importance.

If I am going to limit myself to some of these subjects, I will note that if it is experiencing a surge of interest (from 24 to 30%), climate change is not doing a gigantic leap compared to the hype it is getting, unlike many other subjects. Is it a misperception of the importance of the subject, or a lack of perspective in relation to other, more vital issues in the short term, or is it proof that the subject had already almost reached a plateau? This is not my topic today but no doubt we will have to talk about it again one day.

Digital: fine words or real investments?

Unsurprisingly, one of the major topics is digital, which the crisis has shown to be not only a business catalyst but also the cornerstone of a business continuity plan, regardless of the sector of activity or the size of the company.

Half of the executives plan to significantly increase their investments in digital transformation (>10%). This is the top priority in terms of increased investment.

That’s the positive side of things. It’s certainly the first time that digital transformation has topped the list, ahead of cost reduction, far ahead of sustainability and light years ahead of advertising and brand-related investments.

But we can also consider that the glass is half empty!

The fact that 83% want to increase their investment in digital transformation makes sense in the current context, but it’s an answer made in a certain context and we’ll have to see if it translates into reality.

Then that 49% want to increase them by more than 10% is also a good thing, but 10% from how much? Either these 49% are those who are already ahead and this means that the 51% who are behind will be even further behind and have not learned from the current sequence or they are those who are behind and want to catch up, in which case 10% of nothing will not change the world.

Secondly, even if we have to put our foot down, digital transformation is not a goal but a means. You don’t make your digital transformation but you apply a new way of thinking, of operating and technologies to subjects that are well known.

Digital is a way to reduce costs, to develop talents, to improve your supply chain and even to invest in your brand. So to say that investing in one is a priority and in the other a secondary one leaves me a bit circumspect.

Another point that worries me is cyber security. Yes, businesses have understood that with the growing importance of digital in their operations, cyber security has become a major issue. However, despite the willingness to increase investment in digital, only half of the executives intend to accompany it with investments in cyber security.

Finally, this profusion of digital investments risks considerably complicating the IT of companies, which is already far too complex. Hence the need for simplicity and even simplification. The question is how to achieve this in a context of massive investment and action plans that are sometimes decided in a hurry.

Talents and robots

Another major issue is the development of talent to build a better trained, flexible and adaptable workforce. The crisis has shown us that some companies have had to operate differently in order to cope with the crisis and, generally speaking, high levels of remote work have shown the importance of certain skills, both for supporting new work scenarios and for managing teams remotely.

The digital and remote enterprise is not a matter of tools but a way to organize its production and this requires investing accordingly in human capital.

But this was not the only lesson learned from the crisis and productivity, as it is of course the goal, will also be achieved through the automation of certain tasks, whether we talk about RPA (Robotic Process Automation) for “simple” tasks or increased use of artificial intelligence for more “expert” tasks. In any case, 36% of executives say they want to focus on increasing productivity by using automation and robots.

We are therefore heading towards a course of action that could be summarized as “qualified and trained humans, yes, where they make the difference, and robots elsewhere”.

Pragmatism but no perspective.

I will not hide from you that for once this PWC CEO survey disappoints me a little. Of course it deals mainly with measures taken in reaction to a crisis as sudden as violent and which requires short-term adjustments. But it lacks perspective.

Digital, talent, adapting to an uncertain environment…yes, but from what perspective? For the first time, the PWC CEO Survey does not give us a guideline to project a vision of the enterprise, the business models and the markets in 1, 3 or 5 years. The context does not make things easy, of course, but applying new recipes to an old model does not usually work. As a comparison, the 2015 edition was much more instructive and brought another level of vision and perspective.

We know how the CEOs plan to keep the ship afloat but not where they plan to take it.

Image : Stratégie by EtiAmmos from Shutterstock

Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler
Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler

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