A newly released executive survey from data-driven business transformation advisors NewVantage Partners of senior C-suite execs explores the topics of Big Data and Artificial Intelligence business adoption in 2021. Among the key findings: Even among the challenges with long-term cultural change, participants were mostly optimistic about data and AI within their organizations—with results suggesting that, despite all its business and social challenges, 2020 was the year AI turned the corner of value realization in large firms.
The theme of the 2021 executive survey is The Journey to Becoming Data-Driven: A Progress Report in the State of Corporate Data Initiatives.“It has been nearly a full decade since this executive survey was first launched in 2012. Much progress has been made, but which work remains to be done,” write NewVantage Partners CEO and founder Randy Bean, and Thomas H. Davenport, firm Fellow and author of the landmark study Competing on Analytics, in the new study’s Foreward. “The theme for this year’s survey findings might be ‘dogged optimism despite COVID and culture.’ The COVID-19 pandemic seems to have posed few substantial obstacles for Big Data and AI within the participating firms, many of which are in relatively pandemic-resistant industries like banking and healthcare.”
They continue, “Cultural change, however, seems a more significant barrier to long-term success. Over the years this survey has been conducted, we have commented on the challenge of changing corporate cultures in a more data-driven direction. This year’s findings exhibit that challenge to an even greater degree. All questions relating to the long-term progress of corporate data initiatives exhibited declines from 2019 and 2020 levels, a disappointing development.”
A closer look at the study’s key findings:
A decade in, Big Data is firmly in the mainstream
When this survey was first launched nearly a decade ago, companies had just begun to embrace Big Data and its expected transformational impact. Today, nearly a decade later, mainstream companies have come a long way in having expanded their commitment and investments in data. This is evidenced by the percentage of firms investing in data initiatives (99 percent), appointment of a Chief Data Officer (65 percent), and reporting of measurable business outcomes (96 percent). There is no question that Big Data has been absorbed into the mainstream during this decade.
Leading companies report significant strides in achieving business outcomes
Big Data and AI investment is holding strong and the pace of investment is accelerating, as are companies reporting successful business outcomes. This year, there was nearly universal acknowledgement (96 percent) that Big Data and AI efforts were yielding results, an increase from half that number (48.4 percent) just a half decade ago.
However, companies still face significant headwinds to becoming data-driven
Making a commitment to data-driven transformation is one thing; executing on that commitment is quite another. A decade into these efforts, companies still have a long-way to go—only 39.3 percent are managing data as an asset; only 24.4 percent have forged a data culture within their firms; only 24.0 percent have created a data-driven organization. There is still much work to be done. Leading companies still have some ways to go on their data journey.
The Chief Data Officer role is firmly established, but not firmly defined
Mainstream companies have firmly adopted the CDO role during the past decade—12 percent in 2012 to 65 percent in 2021. However, clarity on responsibilities, focus, purview, and reporting relationship remains in flux. Just under half of Chief Data Officers (49.5 percent) have primary responsibility for data within their firm. Organizations fluctuate between appointing external change agents (44.4 percent) and company insiders (23.5 percent). Only a third of companies (33.3 percent) confirm that the CDO role is successful and established, although this represents an improvement from 2020.
Culture still eats strategy for breakfast
This aphorism is attributed to legendary management consultant Peter Drucker, and it certainly appears to hold true for data transformation efforts. Leading companies continue to identify culture—people, process, organization, change management—as the biggest impediment to becoming data-driven organizations (92.2 percent). Few companies (only 30 percent) have even developed a well-articulated data strategy that culture could eat for breakfast. There is plenty of work to be done.
Adoption of Artificial Intelligence increases at a steady pace
Companies are progressing steadily in their adoption of AI initiatives—77.8 percent of companies report AI capabilities to be in widespread or limited production, up from 65.8 percent last year; only 4.1 percent report no applications of AI in use. With overall investment levels in data and AI increasing, progressive adoption of AI capabilities can be expected to continue.
Although progress has been slow, companies express hope for the future
In spite of the many challenges that leading companies face as they pursue efforts to become more data driven, an overwhelming majority of executives are hopeful for the future—81 percent expressed optimism about the outlook for data/AI within their firms; 91.9 percent indicated that the pace of investment in data/AI was accelerating; 45.4 percent described their companies as leaders in making progress on data/AI; 91.6 percent reported that even with the COVID-19 epidemic, their companies would be spending the same or more on data and AI initiatives. Companies appear to be committed to progressing their data-driven efforts entering 2021.
A decade of transformation. What lies ahead?
Looking back a decade to when this survey was first launched, Big Data and AI were nascent capabilities which received minimal investment. Firms had begun to think about what it would mean to be data-driven, but few had developed formalized programs and articulated a corporate commitment. The function of a Chief Data Officer was non-existent, except within a small handful of companies. Today, Big Data and AI are mainstream, but there is still much to do.
Among the blue-chip firms that participated in the 2021 survey were American Express, Anthem, Bank of America, Bristol-Myer Squibb, Capital One, Cigna, CVS Health, Eli Lilly, Glaxo Smith Kline, JP Morgan Chase, Liberty Mutual, Mastercard, McDonalds, Merck, Pfizer, Sanofi, Starbucks, United Health, VISA, and Walmart. This year, a record 76 percent of respondents held the role of Chief Data Officer or Chief Analytics Officer.
There are 85 Fortune 1000 or industry leading firms represented in the 2021 survey, the highest rate of participation and representation since the survey was first conducted in 2012, in response to Fortune 1000 business and technology executives who sought to understand the potential impact of Big Data, and its implications for their businesses.