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Blog Post

Upskilling from the Top


November 6, 2023

As artificial intelligence (AI) continues its rapid advance, upskilling is shifting from a luxury good to a necessity for almost all workers. Traditionally, upskilling efforts have focused on frontline and production staff. That approach is unlikely to work when it comes to AI. To reap the benefits of this technology, we need commitments at all levels, from corporate leaders to customer service, to expand the use of AI across business sectors and processes. 

Tom Davenport and Steven Miller observe in a recent book that the traditional division between business and information technology (IT) is starting to collapse; as AI advances, there’s pressure on techies to think more globally and strategically about how to use this burgeoning technology. Likewise, senior executives need to invest in learning how to integrate AI-driven smart technology into their business models. They may not need to become their own chief technology officers, but a working knowledge of AI principles and uses will be essential in guiding both overarching strategy and decisions about capital investments in new technology.

In a recent report, Accenture surveyed over 2,500 C-suite executives from large companies across the economy and found that, in an age of rapid change and great uncertainty, companies that fail to integrate new technology into their business strategy are likely to fall behind. Accenture calls companies that successfully integrate technology into their strategy “tech-forward.” According to Accenture, in the years preceding and during the pandemic, tech-forward companies were 2.3 times more likely to outperform their peers in revenue growth and return on invested capital. Most of these companies maintained their edge after the pandemic ended.

As Accenture notes, tech-forward companies aren’t confined to the tech sector. They span various sectors, including insurance, media, and entertainment. This diversity illustrates that many companies, regardless of what they sell, can reap rewards from integrating cutting-edge technology into their business strategy.

A case in point, as Accenture notes, is Moderna, a company that just a few years ago was virtually unknown. Taking advantage of emergency guidance and government investment, Moderna developed its COVID-19 vaccine in less than a year, a process that normally requires five to 10 years, and became a household name across the globe. The catalyst behind its rise–and the heart of its business strategy—was new technology: the mRNA vaccine, the product of integrated AI and robotics systems. This advance will not be the last of its type. Other AI systems are being deployed against a wide-range of acute and chronic conditions, from Alzheimer’s disease to cancer.

Opportunities like these to integrate technology into business strategy abound, with health care being a top beneficiary. By integrating cloud computing, data analytics, and artificial intelligence, companies can swiftly adapt to emerging challenges and opportunities. Increasingly, companies must do these things to remain competitive. And yet, despite the vast benefits of becoming “tech-forward,” Accenture estimates only 21 percent of companies fit this description.

How can companies move the needle? Integrating new technology into the heart of a business does not happen overnight. It requires a sustained, organization-wide effort that, and it depends first and foremost on executive leadership. According to Accenture, more than two-thirds of senior technology leaders say that the lack of tech-fluency—that is, familiarity with the tech vocabulary and knowledge about how the technology their firm uses works—is a major barrier to integrating technology into strategy and operations. By contrast, three-quarters of tech-forward companies report having CEOs and C-suite executives who are tech-fluent. These companies’ C-suites and boards are much likelier to be “strongly tech-minded” than those of other companies. This fluency helps create an environment where executives and boards are actively seeking innovative tools that allow for new applications to leverage their investments in technology.

As Accenture writes, executives in tech-forward companies tend to “attribute their company’s success in part to envisioning ways in which technology broadens the opportunities before them.” These companies, then, are not simply jumping on the bandwagon and following their competitors; rather, they have a vision for technology as the key driver of innovation and growth.

The coming years will be a period of rapid economic transformation that place demands on workers at all levels to master new technologies as they emerge. This requires special effort by more senior, and older, employees, but in the end, the investment pays off for everyone. CEOs who invest in their own AI education can inspire entire companies as well as develop a deeper appreciation for the challenges faced by their workers. Good captains “lead from the front;” executives should do the same.