5 Corporate Leaders Discuss Opportunities in a Digital World

The World Economic Forum’s Digital Transformation of Industries (DTI) initiative, which launched in 2015, represents a major, years-long investment in examining how digitization offers challenges as well as new potential for people, their companies, and local and global societies. Beyond collecting large amounts of information on digitization’s effect on a wide range of industries, the WEF project looks in-depth at how the transformation to a digital economy affects individual industries, as well as how it impacts bigger, cross-industry patterns.

At a WEF session in Davos, Switzerland, in January 2016, the DTI was the focus of one of the most heavily subscribed panels. The session boasted five influential panelists, including Meg Whitman, chairman and CEO of Hewlett Packard Enterprise; Bernard Tyson, CEO of Kaiser Permanente; Klaus Kleinfeld, chairman and CEO of Alcoa, Inc.; Jean-Pascal Tricoire, chairman and CEO of Schneider Electric; and Salesforce.com founder and CEO Marc Benioff.

The panel discussion revolved around three key points: the definition of digital transformation, how to invest wisely in digital technology, and how to create a digital culture within an existing organization. Here is an overview of what each had to say:

Klaus Kleinfeld – Alcoa

Klaus Kleinfeld
Klaus Kleinfeld | Image courtesy Robert Scoble | Flickr

Kleinfeld stated that lightweight metals producer Alcoa now uses 3-D printing in its metals production to better serve the aerospace, automobile, and other industries. The company’s new research and development facility near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is working on innovations in proprietary metal powders designed to enhance 3-D printing processes. The company’s goal is to develop its ability to create precision copies of a model, and thus produce metal components of the highest possible quality. Its use of micro-mill technology has enabled it to turn a 20-day industrial process into one taking only 20 minutes.

Alcoa has also taken advantage of the revolutionary developments in sensor technology, which has now become much less expensive than it was previously, allowing further expansion of industrial operations. In addition, Alcoa has experienced growth due to its ability to harness large data sets and to perform more strategic diagnostics on them. Such emerging capabilities have revolutionized the entire concept of the supply chain in the 21st century.

Jean-Pascal Tricoire – Schneider Electric

Schneider was among the early optimizers of the Salesforce platform, and has been at the forefront of innovation in its sector. Tricoire discussed the fact that traditional industrial methods can consume 50 percent more energy than they need to. In contrast, Schneider is taking advantage of the interconnectivity of the emerging Internet of Things in order to tie its business chain together from the plan, to the power grid, to the final plug in a socket. In fact, Tricoire said, Schneider pioneered in optimizing this growing infrastructure back in the mid-1990s. Since then, the multinational energy supplier has deployed digital analytics on a large scale in order to stay competitive.

Bernard TysonKaiser Permanente

Bernard Tyson
Bernard Tyson | Image courtesy Ted Eytan | Flickr

Tyson stressed the fact that Kaiser, among the United States’ leading managed care providers, has been a leader in integrating digitization into its daily operations, where many other such companies have lagged behind. And Kaiser’s digital transformation continues, building on its history of embracing technological innovations.

Speaking of his industry, Tyson commented that, in the past, health care organizations expected to create the framework for their customers’ experiences, and to have customers come to them when there was an immediate medical need. Today’s climate for the industry is very different, with customers accessing medical information online in a digital environment, and using mobile communications technologies to set up secure and private consultations with physicians.

Meg Whitman – HP Enterprise

Whitman made a strong case for big data analytics and cloud-based predictive analytics as major transformational innovations across industries. HPE, she said, can serve as a strong example of how a 75-year-old company is working to progress in its own digital transformation, even as its mission continues to be to assist other companies in theirs.

She addressed the need for faster connectivity, as well as speed in innovation and service delivery, as key to keeping any kind of company competitive and on track for its own future development. Even in today’s global marketplace, a number of major corporations continue to struggle with sluggish legacy IT systems that hinder their progress. These companies will need to focus on digital transformation—including automation, orchestration, and virtualization—in every area of their operations, even as they work to maintain previous operational levels overall.

Surprisingly, Whitman asserted that incorporating the technology is often the “easy part” of transitioning to a digital corporate environment. The more difficult proposition, she claimed, is guiding the employees through the cultural shift that the new procedures require.

Marc Benioff – Salesforce

Benioff called attention to the new book The Fourth Industrial Revolution by WEF founder Klaus Schwab. The book details the multiple ways in which today’s economy, with the rapid developments in artificial intelligence, supercomputing capacities at a mobile level, and editing of genetic information, has created societal upheavals comparable to those of the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and early 19th centuries.

Benioff went on to focus on the vital importance of trust in such an economy. He said that companies that serve their customers through maintaining data-based personal connections need to understand that customers’ need for privacy and security in these transactions makes trust a non-negotiable prerequisite.