What the world's top consultants think about blockchain, AI and 3D printing

The 5 big trends that McKinsey, BCG and co. are all talking about.

by Rachel Ainsworth
Last Updated: 16 May 2017

To most business leaders, the term ‘management consultant’ is synonymous with ‘expensive advice’. However, it is actually very easy to gain the benefit of at least some consulting advice for free. 

Last year, the world’s leading consulting firms published a huge amount of free content, designed to both educate and impress those grappling with the challenges of running a successful business in our rapidly changing world. And because this ‘thought leadership’ is seen as a vital marketing tool, it is available for free to everyone—from a small business owner to the CEO and board of a multi-national organisation.

Some of this content is weak, a dreary sermon that tells you what you already know. But don’t let this put you off: Among the 5,000 items we’ve added to our database over the past year there is much that can help you avoid reinventing the wheel when tackling your own challenges, as well as insights that will keep you ahead of the competition. Here are the top five topics that consulting firms are writing about, and our view on where to start when exploiting this free advice:

1. Cybersecurity

Estimates of the cost of cybercrime to the global economy range from $375 billion to $575 billion per year. That’s according to IBM’s report Securing the C-suite. These are huge numbers, but what does this level of cybercrime mean for the typical business? Well, according to IBM’s survey of more than 700 C-suite executives, most businesses will be affected and most are unprepared: 94% believe it is probable their companies will experience a significant cybersecurity incident in the next two years yet just 17% are ‘cybersecured’.

It would be easy to dismiss this report and similar warnings from other consulting firms as only applicable to larger organisations. But while smaller organisations are very unlikely to follow IBM’s recommendation to appoint a chief information security officer, there is much in the report that is still relevant, such as the need to collaborate with external parties and to have an informed view of who the enemy is. For more recommendations and information about how other organisations are dealing with this challenging issue, see EY’s Path to cyber resilience.

2. Artificial intelligence

Sensationalist statistics about the AI revolution have been much quoted: In 2013, researchers at the University of Oxford estimated that 47% of total US employment is at risk from computerisation over the next decade or two, and in 2014, Gartner forecast that one in three jobs will be taken by software or robots by 2025. But there’s another side to the story, that of the potential opportunity created by cognitive technologies: the opportunity to take away the mundane and the boring and allow humans to employ those skills that, for now at least, set us apart from computers—skills such as creativity, emotional intelligence, and empathy.

If you’re wondering where to start, try Deloitte’s Demystifying artificial intelligence and its associated online course. And in Turn cognitive computing into business value today, Accenture suggests sorting tasks into four activity models based on data complexity and work complexity, and explains the different types of cognitive solutions appropriate for each model. Meanwhile, for an understanding of how cognitive technologies are being applied in different industries, try IBM’s collection of industry reports.

3. Blockchain

In our experience, most business leaders who are au fait with blockchain work within the financial services sector. Yet, according to experts, blockchain technology—which creates a permanent and transparent record of transactions—will disrupt many other sectors. The Boston Consulting Group’s Thinking outside the blocks, a good resource for those wanting to understand more about the technology, describes blockchain as the disruptive technology for storage, as the PC was for computation and the internet for communication.

The same firm’s Seven possible killer apps for blockchain and digital tokens covers what blockchain could mean in practice. For example, it could help make supply chains cheap and transparent: ‘The item itself—like a bitcoin—can carry a continuous identifier that accesses digitally signed data entered on a blockchain by freight forwarders, customs authorities, shippers, wholesalers, retailers, and trusted independent certifiers. This can replace the bill of lading, but it can also certify that the goods were handmade in Firenze, manufactured by a Fair Trade Federation member, or free of genetically modified organisms.’

4. Digital business models

McKinsey says that "Everyone wants to go digital". While we don’t believe this is true, it is difficult to think of any sector or even individual business that hasn’t been impacted by technology over the past few years. And we do agree with McKinsey’s view in What ‘digital’ really means that different people have different definitions and this lack of clarity can be a problem in many discussions. As a starting point, McKinsey offers three things people mean when they talk about going digital: ‘Creating value at the new frontiers of the business world, creating value in the processes that execute a vision of customer experiences, and building foundational capabilities that support the entire structure.’

In order to offer more concrete advice about how to become ‘digital’, Deloitte surveyed more than 3,700 business executives from around the world. Aligning the organisation for its digital future highlights that one way leading companies are doing this is by constantly cultivating their cultures and investing in their own talent. ‘The main issue is whether or not companies fully accept that this is a dramatically different marketplace and a dramatically different world,’ says Google’s Gingras in the report. ‘In my own personal analysis, not accepting that still holds back many companies. They just don’t recognize how extraordinarily different the world is.’

5. Industry 4.0

This is one of those terms that consulting firms assume is well-known but is seldom used out here in the real world. Industry 4.0 is short for ‘the fourth industrial revolution’ and is used to describe a step forward from the third industrial revolution (driven by computers and automation) and encompasses the application of cutting edge technologies such as advanced robotics, big data and analytics, cloud computing, the industrial internet, simulation, augmented reality, and additive manufacturing. The theory is that firms unlock the full potential of these technologies by coordinating their implementation. For example, in Sprinting to value in Industry 4.0, The Boston Consulting Group describes a manufacturer of truck engines using a 3D printer to create a prototype, thus reducing tooling time from 20 weeks to 2, and an electronics manufacturer using cobots (collaborative robots) to double labelling speed.

However, this cutting edge practice is not yet widespread. The Boston Consulting Group surveyed 380 US-based manufacturing executives, and 53% did say that adopting Industry 4.0 is a priority. But the respondents also highlighted the challenges of developing and implementing a coherent strategy and the need to hire talent and acquire new capabilities. As one executive explains, ‘The needed capabilities don’t currently exist in our company, and we believe they’ll be hard to find.’

Rachel Ainsworth is Head of Thought Leadership at Source Global Research. Source offers free access to a searchable database of consulting firm thought leadership, enabling executives to identify and benefit from relevant content.

Image source: Jonathan Juursema/Wikimedia

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