C-suite leaders prioritizing digital transformation, employee support

But an IBM survey finds their efforts may not be as effective as they think.


The pandemic has drastically altered the way the world’s business leaders are prioritizing.

“When everything is a priority, nothing is a priority. And as executives struggle to make sense of the post-COVID business environment, many find themselves leading from this grey area of indecision,” writes the IBM Institute for Business Value, summarizing the findings of its “COVID-19 and the Future of Business” survey. The report includes input from more than 3,800 C-suite executives across 20 countries and 22 industries, as well as results from multiple IBM surveys of consumers and executives conducted from April through August 2020.

Overall, it finds leaders are prioritizing many new areas as they adapt to the new business reality – but sometimes failing to address “gaps” in how their efforts are being received by employees and customers.

For starters, the survey found the pandemic has accelerated digital transformation at 59% of organizations. Many respondents note that usual transformation barriers, such as the perception of technology immaturity and employee opposition to change, have “fallen away” – with 66% of respondents saying they have been able to implement changes that would have previously been resisted. Part of this shift can be attributed to the perception that new initiatives will help reduce costs, according to IBM.

Many of the shifts identified in the research will not be short-lived. In fact, IBM  finds that COVID-19 has changed how many organizations plan to operate for the foreseeable future. For example, 55% of respondents say it’s led to “permanent changes to our organizational strategy” and 60% say they have adjusted their approach to change management. Many plan to invest in technologies such as AI, IoT, blockchain and the cloud.

At the same time, business leaders say the “human element” will be critical to success going forward, with three-quarters of respondents expecting changes in customer behaviour to continue well after COVID-19 is under control.

This “human element” is central to the competencies that leaders believe will account for the largest part of organizational growth: their employees and customers, including workforce training and customer experience management.

However, on both counts, leaders can be doing much better.

While 84% of executives identify customer experience management as a “high priority” over the next two years – compared to 35% two years ago – improving customer service does not count as being among the most important reasons to pursue digital transformation. IBM finds this “curious” given that 60% of those surveyed say they will employ AI-based customer engagement tools in the future. In other words, it seems execs are failing to understand or leverage the role digital can and should play in supporting customer experience.

Leaders are doing even worse when it comes to their own employees.

While business leaders say inadequate skills and employee burnout are among the biggest barriers to progress – both today and over the next two years – there is a “significant disconnect” between employers and employees when rating how effectively businesses have addressed those gaps, according to IBM.

The reason is that employers “significantly overestimate” how well their support and training efforts are being received by employees. According to IBM, around 50% of workers say their employer is “genuinely concerned about their welfare.”

Similar gaps are identified across many different talent-oriented programs: 74% of executives believe they have helped their employees learn the skills needed to work in a new way, while only 38% of employees agree; 80% of leaders say they have supported the physical and emotional health of their workforce, while only 46% of employees say the same.

To help address these gaps, IBM suggests employers “place deeper focus on their people, putting employees’ end-to-end well-being first.”