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Forget the chief operating officer, chief growth officer or the chief marketing officer. We are now all on the hunt for the next big chief anticipation officer.

With the world thrown into a state of turbulence for the past two years, a new study by SAP and Harvard Business Review says that for many leaders, their roles have evolved into one which needs to anticipate and manage change. The report titled ‘Anticipating the Future for Growth and Innovation’, surveyed 442 global organisations across Asia Pacific, North America, and Europe, and found that the change comes as organisations take a deep look at the shifts in everyday work, and the customer experience that need to be managed and balanced to benefit the planet, the business, and each individual.

This is the moment for chief operations officers to envision, predict and create the future. The study adds that the traditional role of COOs is quickly morphing as machine learning and artificial intelligence render past assumptions and current business models obsolete.

However, COOs that can leverage advanced analytics to forecast future performance, identify untapped opportunities, and expose hidden risks in an ever-changing environment can bring agile and data-driven intelligence to strategic decision-making. Chief operating officers now need to challenge the status quo while dissecting the transformational opportunity, risk, and unexpected consequences of ever-changing human expectations, commerce behaviours, and regulatory requirements.

Meanwhile in Asia Pacific, more than nine in ten (92%) of businesses say that an adaptive culture and continuous employee upskilling is very important, though only 30% say their organisation is very prepared for unexpected changes or disruptions. This is particularly important as APAC businesses increase their investment in people (62%), business processes like innovation or services (69%), and operations (43%) over the next year.

Globally, businesses are strongly focused on strategic planning, many are working to relatively short-term horizons. Almost three quarters (73%) of organisations say they plan for between one and five years into the future. Just one in five (20%) of respondents say their planning horizon is more than five years out.

Priorities when planning

The research also found that organisations share a few common priorities when planning. The top four priorities respondents selected were:

1. Revenue growth and improving profit margins (55%),
2. Finding new customers, markets, and growth areas (51%), 
3. Product and service innovation (47%), and
4. Retaining and attracting talent (46%).

While APAC and other respondents across the globe are mostly aligned on priorities, one difference is in building a more resilient business ecosystem which was selected by more APAC respondents (42%) than respondents from the rest of the world (29%).

“Rarely in the course of history have so many disruptions affected so many businesses at the same time,” said Cathy Ward, chief operating officer, SAP Asia Pacific and Japan. “Unforeseen challenges and new priorities, from supply chain resilience to sustainability, are putting pressure on companies to adapt. What this report shows is that, while agility and resilience are critical to prepare for the future, there’s still no single way to anticipate the changes the future will bring.”  

Challenges businesses face

Despite the priority on anticipating the future, there remain critical challenges many businesses face when planning.

Slow decision-making was identified as the biggest challenge by APAC respondents (38%) when anticipating the future, while attracting the right talent (36%) and retaining staff (36%) were both raised as key issues.

Another problem identified by many APAC companies was a hierarchical disconnect when it came to planning. A third (32%) of businesses said that lower-level employees are not being involved in planning, and that has been a core problem. That may be because the more senior a role, the more they’re encouraged, and rewarded, to have a proactive mindset and think about the future.

“Executives in APAC are much more encouraged (80%) and rewarded (55%) to have a proactive mindset about the future than most other roles,” said Ward. But while leaders are integral to building a future-ready business, they cannot do it alone. That’s why one of the most important steps a leader can take as they move towards becoming the “Chief Anticipation Officer” who creates a culture of collaborative planning and forward-thinking mindset across the organisation.

The survey also found that technology and digital infrastructure are on the minds of many executives, though they may not be organisations’ top focuses. Strong digital infrastructure and cybersecurity skills (42%) was noted as the fourth most-cited answer when asked which skills and competencies most help organisations plan for the future.

Additionally, lacking the technology an organisation needs for the future is also an important challenge to anticipate the future for APAC respondents (32%).

“This moment in time is an incredible opportunity for businesses to look to the future,” concluded Ward. “Continuous change demands flexible, forward-thinking action in three critical areas: how people will work, how we will do business, and how we will operate our organisations. By focusing on these areas, we can break away from traditional methods, better anticipate what’s coming next, and begin to drive new, successful outcomes in the future.”

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