As predictability becomes more elusive, chief strategy officers (CSOs) look ahead to 2024 with an even bigger challenge to separate the signal from the noise and determine where to place their efforts and attention to lead their organizations into the future.

Outthinker Networks sat down with members of our Thought Leader Advisory BoardFelix Oberholzer-Gee (Harvard Business School), Renee Dye (Emory University Goizueta Business School), Rita McGrath (Columbia Business School), Robert Wolcott (Booth School of Business, University of Chicago and Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University), and Tony O’Driscoll (Duke University Fuqua School of Business) — to ask which areas CSOs should watch that are not currently being given enough attention. They shared with us their perspectives on the trends that could significantly impact organizations across industries.

In our conversations, they discussed the six most salient issues for strategy leaders to monitor this year:

  1. Filtering through hype cycles for business relevance
  2. Dealing with greater degrees of uncertainty
  3. Employee experience and engagement
  4. The changing nature of globalization and a polarized internet
  5. Proximity shifts in global supply chains
  6. Diversity, equity, and inclusion backlash

Below we explore what they had to say about each trend.

Filtering through hype cycles for business relevance 

Oberholzer-Gee: We’re going through continuous hype cycles. It was the metaverse. It was bitcoin. It was blockchain. Now it’s AI. It’s hard for people with responsibility to distinguish when the hype is real. We’ve just had these two or three waves of hype that turned out to be underwhelming in their consequences for most companies. Business leaders need frameworks for distinguishing the things that will impact business and the things that will be completely irrelevant.

Dealing with greater degrees of uncertainty

Oberholzer-Gee: What’s interesting is that during times of uncertainty, companies revert to using very old tools. I’m surprised by the number of companies that announced scenario planning as a way to think about potential futures. It’s charming that these tools are still used, but there may be better approaches to dealing with uncertainty, particularly since it’s not completely clear whether that uncertainty has increased in our imaginations or if it’s going to be relevant to business.

For example, if you look at trade statistics, you see there’s a big diversion from China. We’re now importing many products out of Vietnam. Guess who owns those factories in Vietnam — Chinese entrepreneurs. This is a change in trade statistics that will have zero implications for how businesses are run. We need an updated set of tools to handle the degree of uncertainty and determine when that will impact business.

Employee experience and engagement

McGrath: Over time, companies have over-indexed on the customer experience and underinvested in the employee experience. As research from my friend and colleague Tiffani Bova has found, large organizations might have a thousand systems in place, with just a few — 20% of them — integrated. What that means is that to answer a simple customer request, an employee might have to use 12 different unintegrated systems. We would never ask a customer to jump through those hoops!

This sounds tactical but is a much bigger issue than we recognize. It’s relevant to the Great Resignation, general malaise at work, unwillingness to come back into the office, and the sense of exhaustion everybody has.

Bova has done some great research on this. It’s as though employees are doing hopscotch all day long, and it’s exhausting. What becomes strategically interesting is that the companies that get this right — that operate as what I call “permissionless” organizations — can learn much faster than those that haven’t figured it out and that can create a hard-to-copy advantage.

The changing nature of globalization and a polarized internet

McGrath: Another issue that is important to global players is the changing nature of globalization. I’ve written a Harvard Business Review article with Ram Charan on this, in which we talked about the world dividing into a China- or Eastern-dominated world and a more Western, rules-based world. We don’t know yet where it’s going, but it’s a big undercurrent.

O’Driscoll: Pile technology on top of that. If you look at the original worldwide web, the idea was completely open wherever you are in the world. Then it kind of got hijacked by AOL and Google. We’ve ended up with these islands through which we access the web. Scott Malcomson has a great book on the topic called Splinternet: How Geopolitics and Commerce are Fragmenting the World Wide Web.

China and other countries have put up firewalls. But what happens when you take AI on top of that? The Middle East does not want GPT-4 from the tech bros in Silicon Valley. They want to create their own. France created their own, and Singapore is working on it. In the AI domain there will be more than just splinternet. There will be base AI models that are very different.

China and America are codependent, but the underlying technological infrastructure suggests it will be quite different. Are we going to go back to mercantilism where there will be a rules-based order and non-rules based? How does a firm operate in these environments that are becoming extremely polarized, not just politically but in terms of how things get done?

Proximity shifts in global supply chains 

Wolcott: Proximity is where a lot of these things are driving us. For example, the events going on in the Suez Canal and the splinternet are going to incentivize a lot of companies to try and figure out how to bring production and provision closer to demand, closer to where they live in the world, to maintain some sort of control — and to be able to differentiate if they want to play in China or if they’re Starbucks and they want to play in India, for example.

Companies are going to have to think very differently about how they’re operating, even more than in the past. That atomization in the world can be, as Tony said, supported by technology where we can get closer to the edge. We’ll still have cloud computing, but we can push even more to the edge with small language models and the Internet of Things. That’s going to catalyze this trend of proximity significantly.

Diversity, equity, and inclusion backlash 

Dye: Workforce management is going to be highly important going forward. I would add diversity, equity, and inclusion to the list, especially as we watch what is being played out in the court system and corporations are worried about litigation from their own employees.

There is a blowback going on in society at large right now, including a lot of concern and position elimination. DEI blowback is a new phase still in development that may not be on the strategic agenda yet but should be.

Conclusion

In navigating the complex landscape of 2024, strategy leaders are urged to embrace the six pivotal priorities outlined here by our board of thought leaders. For strategists, future success hinges on their ability to discern and address challenges overlooked by others, ensuring their organizations remain agile and resilient in an era defined by uncertainty and transformation.

Photo by Chirayu Trivedi on Unsplash