ISSN 2330-717X

Quantified At Last: Investments In Digital Technologies Drive Profits, Productivity

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Digital technologies such as robotics, mobile and social media, the internet of things, artificial intelligence and big data analytics are transforming the global economy. Overall, investments in these technologies are leading to an increase in productivity and EBITDA for a majority of companies. However, several factors influence the return on investment. A new report, Maximizing the Return on Digital Investments, published by the World Economic Forum in collaboration with Accenture, looks at the impact of investments in digital technologies across 14 different industries.

The data shows that gains are not evenly distributed. The growth associated with these investments is currently driven by the top 20% of companies (by productivity) within each industry sector. Without broader implementation, an “industry inequality” could emerge, creating a small group of highly productive industry leaders and leaving the rest of the economy behind. SMEs in particular, often the driver of national economies, could suffer from competitive disadvantages.

The findings are based on a survey of over 16,000 businesses between 2015 and 2016 and mark a first attempt at quantifying the business impact of digital technologies. Among the key results are that investment in a combination of cognitive technologies, the internet of things, robotics and mobile/social media led on average to an increase in productivity three times higher than investments in any of these technologies individually.

The report, which aims to help business leaders make informed investments in technology, finds considerable variation between industries when it comes to digital investments. On average, heavier industries realize greater returns in productivity. Chemistry and Advanced Materials registered the greatest returns, with industry leaders achieving 160% additional EBITDA per employee investing in these technologies and 120% for the remainder of the sector. Gains by Professional Services businesses follow, generating 80% and 40% respectively. The heavier industries claim the highest gains from investment in robotics (90%), while mobile and social media provide a 70% return for service-oriented companies.

Of the technologies analysed, cognitive technologies offered the highest return, generating $1.90 per employee for every dollar invested. It is expected that the largest investment in these technologies between 2016 and 2020 will be in the internet of things as IoT build-out will generate the huge amounts of data needed for artificial intelligence and big data analytics to flourish.

“Digital transformation is a key driver of sweeping change in the world around us, improving people’s lives and opening new opportunities for businesses to grow and create value,” said Jonas Prising, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of ManpowerGroup. “Yet gaps occur when innovation moves faster than organizational and societal frameworks allow. Wherever companies are on their digital journey, the path is clear: they need to invest in the technologies that maximize business opportunity on the one hand while developing people’s skills and capabilities to be successful in the digital age with the other.”

Would-be technology investors should be aware, however, that while industry leaders on the whole generate higher returns than followers, the survey finds that when it comes to internet of things and cognitive technologies, followers are able to benefit from the best practices and reduced costs made possible by pioneering leaders, and thus achieve a greater return.

“At the moment, companies are running the risk of investing in digital technologies without a full picture of the impact of those decisions. This is either because they find the benefits hard to quantify, they are worried about disrupting their own business model or they just don’t know how to make the right investments,” said Bruce Weinelt, Head of Digital Transformation of the World Economic Forum. “This report provides proof of positive returns on digital investments and offers executives practical guidelines.”

The report identifies five key drivers for maximizing value from digital investments:

  • Agile and digital-savvy leadership: nimble decision-making process combined with strategic vision across all management levels
  • Forward-looking skills agenda: Reskilling and aligning hiring around innovation to create a flexible, accountable workforce
  • Ecosystem thinking: success is increasingly dependent on customers, partners, and supply chain and other stakeholders
  • Data access and management: real-time insights are only possible with robust data infrastructure, warehousing and analytics
  • Technology infrastructure readiness: Effective use of cloud storage, cyber security, interoperability and transparency is key

The report was developed with input from Arne Sorenson, President and Chief Executive Officer, Marriott International, and Jonas Prising, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, ManpowerGroup. It is part of the Forum’s Digital Transformation Initiative launched in 2015. Over the past three years, the initiative has analysed the impact of digital transformation across multiple industries with inputs from more than 450 experts, including over 200 chief executives.


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