The Intentional Futurist in the C-Suite: Watch These Signals

Businesses can leverage these key signals to anticipate and successfully respond to future disruption in real-time.

Kathleen O’Reilly, Accenture’s Communications, Media and Technology Industry Practices Chair

December 8, 2021

5 Min Read
telescope aimed at the horizon

The global impact of the COVID-19 pandemic served as a wake-up call to business leaders that they can no longer rely on simply learning from the past. Companies that can spot change while it’s happening, and learn to reasonably forecast its outcomes, start at a better position and end with a better result. That means using every tool and technology in the arsenal of the C-suite to become more predictive and less reliant on strategies built on patterns emerging from historical data sets.

It’s time to become intentional futurists.

Take Toronto-based BlueDot, whose algorithm predicted the COVID-19 outbreak a full week before the World Health Organization. BlueDot had this capability because its algorithm is fed with wide-ranging real-time data from government healthcare sources, airline ticket records, livestock health reports, and news reports in 65 languages. The company’s system updates every 15 minutes.

What is striking is that most business leaders, according to Accenture’s Business Futures research, do not feel equipped to make sound decisions as they (and we all) continue to face an unsettled future. Only 6% feel completely confident in their abilities to foresee and respond to future disruption.

As part of our research, we identified the signals of business change to provide leaders with visibility and guidance through the decision fog. Chief among them include:

Learning from the Future: Companies are starting to use data analytics and artificial intelligence to find patterns and create strategies that anticipate the future. Rather than focusing on the past for insights, the best organizations are becoming more predictive.

Our research indicates that while leaders understand the need to be learning from the future, executing on this is a challenge. More than three-quarters of the executives we surveyed had increased their use of real-time data over the past year, but less than half said they have sufficient skills within their workforce to support their efforts.

Real Virtualities: The pandemic upended our sense of location, both socially and economically. Supply chains broke down, countries went into deep quarantine, and a new brand of nationalism redefined politics, suggesting to many that globalization was going in reverse. But several of the signals that emerged from our research show the world is becoming more interconnected following the pandemic, not less -- location matters less, not more.

In our research, 88% of executives surveyed said that they are investing in technologies that would enable their organizations to create virtual environments; Ninety-one percent of them would increase those investments in the next three years.

These are the technologies that blend the virtual and physical worlds. Remote work, remote learning, and our remote social lives caused by the pandemic have led to the increasing need for virtual environments. Current virtual reality technology mostly engages our senses of vision and hearing but over time, it will engage all our senses. Virtual worlds will become increasingly realistic, imbued with a greater sense of the physical, engaging smell, and feel as well as sight and sound.

Long-term, the distinction between the physical and virtual worlds will continue to blur. Top training in education, technology, science, and health will reach every corner of the globe. For businesses and other organizations, the opportunities include stronger, more diverse pipelines of ideas and talent. Think of surgeons in training from different countries gathering as holograms around virtual patients to learn from expert surgeons around the world.

Supply unbounded: Some leading organizations -- responding at least in part to the immense disruptions of global supply chains over the past year -- are breaking the physical limits of supply. How? They are taking production to the point of demand -- and again, making location matter less in an even more interconnected world.

For example, Winsun, a Chinese tech-construction company, uses 3D printing technologies to print building components for buildings -- ranging from 10-square-meter COVID-19 isolation units to 1,000 square meter houses -- on location. The result: a 60% reduction in materials and up to an 80% reduction in labor hours.

Company leaders need to focus now on redefining the role of each part of their fulfillment network, working with partners, and aligning product design with unbounded supply chains.

Pushed to the edge: Companies poised to lead in this next phase of globalization are pushing decision-making authority to the people at the “edges” of their operations around the world. They are borrowing from the principle behind “edge” computing -- increasing speed by moving processing closer to the point of use. By decentralizing authority, organizations can create bursts of innovation and speed decision making at the edges of their operations.

Nike is a great example. Early in the pandemic, Nike’s digital sales in China jumped more than 30% in one quarter because of the moves management made to quickly respond. One example is how quickly they redirected merchandise destined for physical stores to e-commerce sites. Nike turned that local success into an “operational playbook” that management deployed globally to help their people lead through the pandemic with exceptional speed and agility.

Netflix also pushes authority to the edges of its operations to speed production. It became one of the world’s fastest-growing companies by delegating decision-making to what it calls “informed captains” --employees at many levels making big decisions after collecting lots of information. Pushing decision-making to the edges of the organization enables Netflix to create content that fits fast-changing viewer tastes around the world. Last year, 83% of the company’s new subscriptions came from outside North America.

Now is the time to create a flatter organization, delegate decision-making locally and focus on upskilling the workforce to take on more technically advanced roles.

Looking Ahead

Company leaders are facing significant change across every aspect of their organization. This “change at every turn” urgency has upended the normal planning and change management process. The path to growth has never been more complex. But, with clear signals along the way, leaders can better predict, plan, and adapt to the changes in real-time -- becoming intentional futurists.

About the Author(s)

Kathleen O’Reilly

Accenture’s Communications, Media and Technology Industry Practices Chair

Kathleen O’Reilly is Accenture’s global Communications, Media and Technology industry practices chair and is a member of Accenture’s Global Management Committee. Kathleen also leads Accenture’s work with the World Economic Forum around transformation of industries, digital economy and new value creation, and defining and building the metaverse, and she supports causes related to childhood cancer, education and environmental sustainability.

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