Key takeaways

  • CEOs are concerned about keeping up with the speed of technological change. But is their focus wrong?
  • Focussing on the goals of technological trends, such as convenience and ease when it comes to customer service, will allow organisations to align technology with business goals – not the other way around.
  • Companies need to become flexible in their approach to work so that they can evaluate new tech quickly and move on.

When it comes to technology, CEOs don’t have the need for speed, according to PwC’s latest CEO survey.

Of all the threats to organisational growth concerning executives, the speed of technological change was one of the few in the top ten that in fact comes under the CEO remit.

On the whole, leaders in 2018 are worried more about big picture issues – such as terrorism, geopolitical uncertainty and climate change – than things they can directly influence. While cyber threats and the need for skills popped up in the top ten, the former can only be prepared for, not controlled, and the latter is eminently solvable.

What technological change
really means

Technological change could be seen as a big picture issue. But what CEOs  – 73% of those surveyed – actually mean when they say the speed of change is keeping them up at night is not that it’s happening, but that they can’t keep up with it.

Many of today’s CEOs were trained in an era where transformations were finite. Organisations had three-year change plans and implementation schedules, things that started on Day 1 and ended a set amount of months later.

These days, transformation simply doesn’t work that way. Technology is changing daily, faster – far faster – than the time traditionally taken to implement and embed it in a business. There is often little time to consider the options, let alone build business cases and multi-month roll out plans.

By the time you’ve locked down one piece or emergent tech, ten more concepts will have gone from theory to market.

As customers adapt and adopt, so too must a business. A hard task when one considers the rate of change that an individual is comfortable with versus an industry or company.

Businesses need to be aligned, for obvious reasons, with the speed of the consumer. But this is much easier said than done.

the technology

The answer is for companies to forget the technology. No single CEO, let alone their business, will be able to keep up, or catch up, with the speed of tech change. As a society, we are adopting technology at far greater rates than ever before.

The telephone took a hundred years to go from inception to total adoption. The household stovetop took 60 years to hit saturation point, the car 90 years.1 Compare that with newer inventions like the internet (20 years), social media (10 years to reach 80% saturation), or tablets which went from invention to 50% saturation in just five years.

Keeping up with such change is in many ways impossible, but that does not mean that today’s companies are doomed to fail. Instead they need to adapt to this continual disruption, rapidly capitalising on technological trends in order to thrive.

The answer is in an agility of transformation.

By shifting the focus from the technology to the goal at the heart of technological trends it won’t matter the technology that flourishes or fails in the meantime as companies will stay firmly on the path to their vision.

The way in which Facebook re-aligned their technology from web to mobile is an example of this.2 Originally, Facebook’s core team was organised around web (encompassing events, messages and photos) with separate Android and iOS teams, but found that their mobile teams were continually playing catch up with the rise of mobile.

Changing the internal structure so that teams were aligned around product goals – be those messaging, events or photos – the areas that Facebook wanted to dominate, and incorporating the mobile ‘technology’ staff into those teams meant that all products could be mobile-first and teams could “live and breathe” the product – not the tech.

It’s a common thread with agile companies including Alibaba, Tesla and Atlassian: their staff are all clear about the brand’s purpose and as such can make bold moves speedily.

An organisational shift
towards adaptability

Becoming a flexible organisation means CEOs must embrace a shift in the way that they do business, from culture to strategy, planning to execution. Three complementary capabilities will go a long way towards this.

  1. Ability to constantly scan the environment for emerging threats and opportunities.
  2. Ability to quickly move resources – be they money or people – towards a goal.
  3. Ability to quickly gather and disperse staff and stakeholders into new teams/relationships as needed.

Attaining these organisational skills will require cultural change (as well as behavioural change towards ways of working), leadership support, flexible governance structures and the alignment of staff (and their KPIs) towards agility. But this work will enable organisations to quickly adopt relevant technologies and improve customer experiences no matter what comes their way.

In this new, dynamically capable world, staff can evaluate new technologies as they emerge, from their different areas of expertise (versus traditional silos), honing in quickly on what will and won’t work. Testing and failing fast, and being encouraged to do so, will quicken the process to implementation and technology itself will be chosen or discarded based on how well it will move the business towards its vision (be it better customer experience, integrated services, personalised products and so on).

At no point will a business need to throw the baby out with the bathwater as the implementation is of the goal, not the technology, and all learnings will be valuable.

Go with the
technological flow

Businesses no longer have the luxury of drawn-out timelines, intensive risk aversion or large IT projects that start and finish within set times.

While understandable that CEOs are worrying about the speed of technological change, this indicates that for many, they have not set up their organisations to work differently.

A dextrous company will be one that is aligned to customer-centric goals, which, not coincidentally, will be the endgame of many of the overarching technological trends as they hurtle towards providing speed, personalisation and convenience. This internal nimbleness will in turn be able to weather changes in ‘how’ these goals will be achieved.

To finish with a quote from someone that, given the topic, is quite appropriate: Isaac Asimov – he of the famous robot rules – said that he was not a speed reader, but a speed understander. And it is speed understanding that businesses need to get good at.

Ironically, to do so many CEOs will need to slow down, just for a moment, to imbue their company with agility.

If they do so, we’re certain they’ll sleep better at night.

For all the insights from the PwC 21st CEO Survey visit the Australian results homepage, or view the global report.


John Riccio

John is a former partner at PwC Australia and the founder of Digital Pulse.

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