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  • Insider surveyed 614 business decision makers in 7 countries to ask about investment in innovation, ESG, and purpose.
  • Cloud, AI, smart mobility, and talent are among the top innovation priorities. 
  • Companies are also investing in ESG goals, particularly around greenhouse gas emissions and water. 
  • Visit Insider’s Transforming Business homepage for more stories. 

In late 2020, we polled 53 of the individuals named to the 100 People Transforming Business in North America, Asia, and Europe.

The goal was to find out how the global pandemic had changed their company’s priorities, as well as what areas of innovation they were investing in, and what they viewed as the biggest benefits of business transformation. 

Key takeaways from the poll:

  • Transformers reported their companies would be investing in hiring talent, AI and machine learning, and partnerships as innovation drivers in 2021.
  • Economic downturn, followed by legislation and politics, were said to be the biggest threats to achieving transformation goals in 2021.
  • The biggest benefits of digital transformation were customer acquisition and satisfaction, and product development.

To find out how other organizations are prioritizing innovation, we conducted a poll using SurveyMonkey Audience, targeting 614 individuals who work in a management capacity at their company. The survey included respondents from the US and Canada, as well as Hong Kong, Singapore, France, Germany, and India (with smaller sample sizes outside of the US and Canada*) .

These survey respondents reported similar innovation drivers as our Transformers sample, but we went even deeper into topics like Environmental, Social, and Governance goals, and purpose. 

*Full methodology at the bottom of the story. 

Cloud and AI are top investment priorities, with smart mobility and talent not far behind

Cloud technology and AI/machine learning topped the rankings of what drivers of innovation and transformation the total respondents will be investing in this year. followed by smart mobility, and then talent and hiring. 

Many of the stories in the Transformers series have touched on the impact of cloud and AI technologies. Winnie Lee, cofounder and COO of Taiwan-based Appier told us about where the industry is headed as more and more companies confront the need to adapt to remote work situations, disrupted supply chains and more operational challenges than ever before.

“Predictive AI is the trend the industry is moving toward right now,” she said. “Turning data into insight is of course important, but how to turn data into insight and then into action is even more important.”

The pandemic has increased the focus on transformation and innovation

Survey respondents were asked how the pandemic had changed their investment priori tes. About 48% told us that they are investing significantly or somewhat more on innovation as a result of the global health crisis, with 21% reporting no change, and 31% reporting somewhat or significantly less. 

Throughout the Transforming Business series, we’ve seen examples of how companies that invested in innovation before the pandemic were able to pivot when it was most crucial.

One Transformer, Joanna Shields, who is CEO of BenevolentAI, a drug discovery startup, spoke about the impact on healthcare. “The coronavirus pandemic reinforced how human intelligence partnered with purposeful technology can achieve inspirational results, even when the world is locked down,” she said. “While AI models and algorithms will never fully replace scientists and clinicians, they can save time and money — which is crucial in our current climate.”

Talent retention, upskilling, and DEI are key components of innovation investment

Talent recruitment tracked as the second biggest benefit to digital transformation among those polled.

The evolving demands  of talent has been a featured theme throughout the Transformers series. Innovations such as AI and machine learning can cause anxiety across the workforce as it’s often perceived that human jobs will be eliminated. But there are big opportunities now for companies to upskill workers in line with the digital innovations that are coming on board. 

James Smith, UK managing director of AutoStore, a Norwegian robotics company whose CEO, Karl Johan Lier, was featured in Insider’s Transforming Business series, told Insider,  “We have seen first-hand those who are implementing this technology successfully and also reskilling workforces in line with this… Puma is a prime example of a business which has managed to do this on a global scale and transform the way they do business, taking their employees with them in doing this as well.”

Survey respondents in Singapore, Hong Kong, and France said their companies were spending more on innovation, while more in Germany and the UK said they were spending less.

A look at innovation investment by country

Respondents in each country told us which areas of innovation their companies are investing in, and were asked to choose all that applied. 

The pandemic increased commitment to purpose, respondents said

Some 46% of respondents said their companies’ commitment to purpose had increased since the pandemic, with only 24% reporting a decrease.

In an op-ed for Insider, Transformer Mike Pykosz, cofounder and CEO of Oak Street Health said that the pandemic provides an opportunity for the healthcare industry to address systemic inequities in care that predated the current health crisis. 

“While the pandemic is shining a light on the deeply rooted health disparities in our country, there is light at the end of the tunnel thanks to the marvel of science and medicine, and we are all excited for the day that we can put COVID behind us and return to a semblance of normalcy,” Pykosz wrote.

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“When that happens, we must not lose focus on the need to deliver quality, equitable healthcare for all Americans – no matter their race or zip code and socioeconomic status.”

Companies are making commitments to climate change, and other ESG goals

Just over 63% of the survey respondents in total said their company had made a public commitment to combatting climate change. That’s been a significant topic throughout the Transforming Business series, particularly around renewable energy.

Insider reported how increasing focus on climate change and other issues such as corporate governance and racial justice, have contributed to a surge in demand for socially-responsible and ESG-themed investments.

Heather McGeory, global practice lead, climate and sustainability at APCO Worldwide, said that many companies are responding to the risks that climate change pose on their operations and growth. “If you have that lens, you’re seeing if we don’t mitigate or adapt to climate change it’s actually really bad for business,” McGeory said. 

This SurveyMonkey Audience poll targeted individuals who work in a management capacity at their company according to the Audience panel. They included respondents from Hong Kong (n=50), Singapore (n=50), The United States (n=207), Canada (n=104), France (n=52), the United Kingdom (n=51), Germany (n=50) and India (n=50), with local translations in Germany and France. Respondents are incentivized to complete surveys through charitable contributions. Generally speaking, digital polling tends to skew toward people with access to the internet. SurveyMonkey Audience doesn’t try to weight its sample based on race or income. Polling data collected total of 614 respondents March 3-4, 2021.

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