A select group of leading companies have cracked the code for winning in a world defined by digital engagement, embedded artificial intelligence (AI), and low-emissions products, processes, and supply chains. They have mastered the ability to realize business value from their digital and data investments, avoiding the trap of lengthy IT projects with large cost overruns. Their financial and nonfinancial performance is dramatically superior to that of companies still playing by the old rules, which, as a result, face an existential threat. The leaders, for their part, have created $9.3 trillion in shareholder value in the past five years.
BCG’s latest research provides a compelling and pragmatic blueprint for how CEOs can propel their companies to the front of the pack by accelerating and de-risking their change agendas to rank among the winners.
Every CEO faces the challenge of meeting investors’ expectations for current performance while dealing with myriad other issues such as rising interest rates, supply chain shortages, geopolitical tensions, cybersecurity risks, and activist investors. Current cost pressures add to the challenge. And while 60% of companies worldwide are planning to increase their 2023 digital investments, compared with their allocations in 2022, BCG research shows that many if not most CEOs are frustrated by poor business cases, increasing demands for significant capital expenditures, and unclear realized value for the business. Almost 85% cite cumbersome coordination with vendors, and 74% believe their company is implementing cookie-cutter solutions. Almost 70% say their company does not prioritize its investments well in executing digital transformation programs.
Critically, the fundamental drivers of both superior current performance and sustainable competitive advantage are changing because growth opportunities and the capabilities required to win in new markets are shifting.
Growth, which accounts for 60% to 70% of shareholder returns in the medium term, has plateaued in traditional markets. The action has shifted to new markets, including those created by technology disruption, such as e-commerce, streaming media, cloud-based interactions, mobility solutions, and smart energy solutions. Growth opportunities are expanding in areas related to the energy transition and low-emission technology as well as in gene therapy, the metaverse, and quantum computing.
Many incumbents struggle to justify investments in these disruptive new opportunities and, instead, only make incremental investments in their current businesses (or they invest in the wrong areas). Since they lack the capabilities—the talent and processes—that are required to access the new markets and gain advantage with AI and other technologies, their futures are bleak. Growth will slow and insurgents will target their profit pools.
Meanwhile, a small number of companies have built winning capabilities and have broken away from the pack. They have found a way to invest not only in smart technology but also in their people, processes, and culture to realize value from their investments. For example, when investing in AI, these companies have adhered to the 10-20-70 rule: 10% of the effort lies in building an adequate AI model; 20% involves making high-quality data available; and 70% focuses on people, developing new business processes, and transforming the way business functions operate. Equally, these companies are addressing the rapidly changing skills mix required to win in new growth markets. For example, consider the skills that will be needed for generative AI. A new study from Goldman Sachs suggests that this technology could expose 300 million jobs to automation worldwide. At the same time, new technologies will create many other jobs. These companies understand such shifts and are planning for the future.
These future winners share a common set of attributes (six, to be exact) that, regardless of their sector, underpin their success. These attributes enable them to outperform, to be more resilient to shocks and disruptions, and to exploit innovation faster for value-creating growth. They are widening the gap with their competitors and generating shareholder returns almost three times greater than those of the S&P 1200, with two-thirds of the value created coming from revenue growth. These leading companies are built for the future.
A clear blueprint, or playbook, has emerged for how to become a company that is built for the future. The blueprint reconciles the challenge of what these companies need to do (identifying which initiatives drive the most value by sector) with how to do it (determining which capabilities drive success and how to build them fast). CEOs can tailor this new playbook to their company-specific change agendas. Here are the details.
Against this backdrop, CEOs need to strengthen their companies’ competitive advantages, the basis of performance for the future. In the past, advantage derived from structural differences, such as scale, that often can be replicated and neutralized. The new bases of advantage are rooted in superior capabilities, especially those related to digital, AI, and innovation.
These capabilities are more difficult to establish but much more enduring for two reasons. First, technologies themselves are evolving rapidly. So, for example, companies that have built capabilities around data and analytics can ride the wave as AI algorithms become more sophisticated and better trained and the companies deploy further innovations around new developments (such as generative AI). Second, companies that have these capabilities benefit from a flywheel effect—they can invent, deploy, adapt, and reinvent more quickly and with greater impact than their competitors can. They also get better at cocreating with customers and ecosystem partners and at democratizing the use of data throughout their organization.
BCG’s latest research, capping three years of empirical study of digital transformations and the changing nature of competitive advantage, offers the blueprint CEOs are looking for. (See “About Our Research.”) The new research reveals the attributes, or groups of capabilities, that best correlate with superior current performance and future advantage. Six specific attributes are endemic to companies that are built for the future and enable them to move into new high-growth markets that are beyond the reach of less-capable players:
The journey to acquire these six attributes is similar for all companies, but since sectors, company context, and starting points differ, it requires tailoring. BCG surveyed 725 C-suite members to understand how their companies are building (or have built) more than 50 different capabilities in five areas that previous research has shown are fundamental to success: senior management commitment, strategy and approach, governance, people, and technology. We then analyzed which of these capabilities contribute most to an organization’s future readiness, which we can link to financial and nonfinancial metrics that investors value, such as shareholder returns, growth in earnings before interest and taxes, customer satisfaction, and talent attraction. We scored each surveyed company on its position along the journey toward becoming future built and identified four groups of companies on the basis of their progress: stagnating, emerging, scaling, and future built. (See Exhibit 1.)
Stagnating companies (a sobering 30% of our sample) remain at the starting gate—they are still deciding how to move forward. Some haven’t yet aligned executives around the need for fundamental, as opposed to incremental, change. Many are wary about writing big checks (though some have) to systems integrators and platform providers for multiyear technology upgrades that are well known to have high rates of failure. Still others have digital initiatives that have gone nowhere—they have little to show for the time and money they have invested.
Emerging companies (45% of the sample) have created value from a digital transformation, but they continue to face challenges in effectively scaling solutions, and they haven’t evolved much beyond fixing the basics in their core value chain. They risk becoming stuck with pockets of digital capabilities but fail to create systemic, organization-wide changes to their culture and operating model.
Scalers (19%) have delivered a successful wave or waves of digital and AI transformations and created sustainable change in the organization. They are focusing on embedding these solutions across the enterprise and pivoting toward growth from innovation. These companies are delivering (in some cases, eye-popping) results. (See Exhibit 2.)
Future-built companies (6%) exhibit all six attributes at scale. They are on the leading edge of disruption in their sectors, demonstrate resilience in the face of uncertainty, and are best placed to benefit from technology disruption.
The more advanced companies (scalers and future-built firms) are opening big chasms with the stagnating and emerging companies in critical capabilities that cement advantage. For example:
The value implications are staggering. Measured against the S&P 1200 index, scalers and future-built companies (the top 25%) are responsible for $9.3 trillion, or nearly half, of the index’s value creation in the past five years. Relative to the leaders, stagnating companies (the bottom 30%) have missed an opportunity to create an additional $5 trillion.
So how do CEOs focus their management teams on embedding the six attributes across their organization? BCG has created a pragmatic playbook that companies can tailor to their sector, current attribute maturity, and stakeholder requirements to drive both performance in the short term and sustainable advantage. It shows how to achieve value from new initiatives, especially from AI use cases, growth from innovation, and ESG initiatives. (See “How Digital and AI Capabilities Deliver ESG.”)
Stagnating and Emerging. In 2020, we described the six success factors that are critical to the success of a digital transformation. Embedding the success factors enables a programmatic step change in digital capabilities that typically fixes the basics by digitizing the core value chain, improving the customer experience, and supporting end-to-end customer journeys. In the two years since, the companies in all sectors that have deployed this approach have delivered individual solutions in such diverse areas as implementing agile operating models, replacing aging technology stacks, and achieving digital excellence in targeted corporate functions. These companies have been focused on business value through prioritized use cases and have avoided spending years and large amounts of capital on generic foundational capabilities. For example, they have not built all the large-scale infrastructure for data and analytics upfront; instead, they have worked back from the use cases and built what is necessary for impact, recognizing that scaling the infrastructure will go hand in hand with scaling the benefits.
The 2022 data shows only a modest improvement in scores for stagnating and emerging companies, far from what is required for these firms to remain competitive. Too many firms are approaching digital transformation with a cautious, evolutionary mindset, which is holding them back and widening the gap with the companies that are progressing at a faster pace.
For example, one tenet of the CEO playbook is that companies need a certain level of digital maturity in order to create value from AI initiatives. AI maturity tends to lag digital maturity, since successful at-scale AI deployment requires some foundational capabilities, including clean, accessible data and an openness in the business to experiment with and commit to using AI. Our latest research shows that 46% of companies have not built strong digital foundations, and none of these has a strong AI capability. Another 42% are relatively advanced digitally but don’t feel that they are AI mature. Only 12% of the companies have achieved strong digital and AI maturity—and, thus, are positioned to capitalize on the next wave of advances.
Scaling and Future Built. Our latest research yields critical insights into how more-advanced companies, irrespective of sector, pivot their priorities. Once a step change has been achieved through a successful digital transformation, the next question is how best to keep building the attributes that will underpin future success. Typically, companies tire of large-scale change programs, so management looks for solutions that are implemented by business units under the mantra of continuous improvement. This approach has risks: it can lead to line managers prioritizing short-term results over more systemic change, and it risks a loss of momentum in the transition and a failure to capitalize on early gains.
Successful change requires a purposeful approach to both the what (the specific initiatives to prioritize for highest impact) and the how (the mechanisms and governance processes to deploy to make continuous change an integral part of the new operating model). Advanced companies reduce the emphasis on process-digitization fixes (since their core processes, channels, and customer engagement are much improved) and shift the focus to growth from innovation. (See Exhibit 3.) They typically prioritize scaling AI solutions (for example, in order to drive revenue growth from personalization) and orchestrate and contribute to business ecosystems.
There is a remarkable similarity among advanced players in all sectors in their focus on the six attributes. (See Exhibit 4.) At a more granular level, however, the details of the capabilities that companies prioritize vary by sector and company context. The value-driven portfolio of initiatives for scaling and future-built companies also varies significantly by sector. (See Exhibit 5.) As an example, retailers tend to get the highest value from new-business opportunities, such as ride-sharing partnerships, and e-commerce initiatives, such as personalization. Advanced automotive and mobility players tend to see the most value from integrated customer experiences (using customer-facing apps, for example) and workforce management solutions (such as an automated warehouse). Companies need to decide on the business outcomes they seek and the specific use cases they need to build. They also need to determine the minimum viable foundations of technology and data that will enable them to scale solutions. Advanced companies are doing this and incorporating a continuous improvement agenda with new initiatives that leverage the progress already made.
Companies such as Anheuser-Busch InBev, Apple, BMW Group, Microsoft, and Woolworths provide useful insights into how to execute this playbook. Here are some examples:
Our empirically derived insights offer a practical playbook that guides companies to both improve near-term performance and build the necessary capabilities for sustained advantage. For stagnating and emerging companies, this playbook flips the odds of digital transformation success from 30% to 80%. For scaling companies, it shows how to make the transition to continuous improvement and capability building. The playbook also brings together the sector-specific initiatives that drive the most value at each stage of the journey and shows how to build the specific capabilities that will strengthen the six attributes.
We all know the adage that past success is no guarantee of future success. This has never been truer. The rules for current performance and future advantage are changing, and CEOs urgently need a pragmatic change playbook. Success depends on a de-risked and accelerated change agenda that drives current performance and builds the capabilities required for sustainable advantage. The corporate world is bifurcating between high value-creating, resilient, adaptive, and future-proofed winners—companies that are built for the future—and companies that risk underperformance and even extinction by failing to respond fast enough to the tectonic changes taking place.
The authors are grateful to Priyanka Birla, Sébastien Cagnon, Alec Kennison, Michael Mckissack, George Punnen, Shreyansh Sharma, Divakar Singh, Anshu Singhal, Karen Wang, Travis Washington, Katie Wells, Matthew Williams, and Yingying Zhu for their assistance with the research and their contributions to this article. Special thanks to BCG’s Center for Growth and Innovation Analytics team.
ABOUT BOSTON CONSULTING GROUP
Boston Consulting Group partners with leaders in business and society to tackle their most important challenges and capture their greatest opportunities. BCG was the pioneer in business strategy when it was founded in 1963. Today, we work closely with clients to embrace a transformational approach aimed at benefiting all stakeholders—empowering organizations to grow, build sustainable competitive advantage, and drive positive societal impact.
Our diverse, global teams bring deep industry and functional expertise and a range of perspectives that question the status quo and spark change. BCG delivers solutions through leading-edge management consulting, technology and design, and corporate and digital ventures. We work in a uniquely collaborative model across the firm and throughout all levels of the client organization, fueled by the goal of helping our clients thrive and enabling them to make the world a better place.
© Boston Consulting Group 2023. All rights reserved.
For information or permission to reprint, please contact BCG at email@example.com. To find the latest BCG content and register to receive e-alerts on this topic or others, please visit bcg.com. Follow Boston Consulting Group on Facebook and X (formerly Twitter).