Research carried out on behalf of KPMG among chief executives in Ireland and internationally has found unprecedented levels of uncertainty regarding the future of the businesses they lead.
Globally, 72 percent of them believe the next three years will be more critical for their industry than the last 50 with almost two in three (64 per cent) of Irish chief executives agreeing.
Carried out by Forbes, the research was aimed at looking beyond short-term sentiment and gaining insights into the strategic issues of most concern to chief executives. Among the key issues revealed by the resulting Now or Never report was the challenge presented to leadership in an era of unprecedented technological change.
"Technology, connected consumers and sector convergence are upending business models, blurring lines between industries and companies and demanding a new way of thinking about business," says Shaun Murphy, managing partner of KPMG in Ireland. "This emerged as one the key themes of the research findings."
Murphy says the nature of the challenge faced now is fundamentally different to those of the past.
"CEOs increasingly have to lead on mission-critical issues they haven't grown up with or previously experienced in their careers. In many cases, they are having to contend with the idea that a competitor could emerge from out of the blue to significantly disrupt their business," he says.
Indeed, only the uncertainty surrounding the global economy ranks ahead of the threat posed by new competitors or disruptors as far as Irish chief executives are concerned.
"Almost half of Irish CEOs we surveyed are concerned about the amount of time they personally have to think strategically about the forces of disruption and innovation shaping their company's future," Murphy says.
He believes the pace, scale and scope of change faced by Irish chief executives has never been greater. "Irish CEOs also share many of the same concerns as their global peers, ranging from cybersecurity to maximising the value of data and analytics."
The research also points to some policy issues related to innovation that highlight potential areas of opportunity for Ireland. Firstly, Irish chief executives surveyed tend to have a lower propensity to see the benefit of collaboration with third-level colleges in order to foster innovation when compared with chief executives elsewhere.
Secondly, fewer than half (44 per cent) of Irish chief executives surveyed believe their organisation connects in a beneficial way with start-ups in comparison with 70 per cent of their global peers who see real benefits in such relationships.
However, despite the pace of change, the KPMG report indicates that Irish chief executives are generally upbeat about their own abilities when faced with such a list of issues to contend with and over half of them also expect to grow their headcount in the next three years.
"Our research highlights the extent to which Irish CEOs remain confident about the ability of both their business and their sector to outperform both the Irish and global economies," says Murphy.
Irish chief executives in general expressed reasonable confidence about the economy, although they were less confident than their global peers in relation to their home countries. According to Murphy, issues such as Brexit represent a complicating factor with almost half (48 per cent) of Irish chief executives believing Brexit will add to business complexity.
"We think it is worth looking at potential business scenarios, including that of an increasingly probable "hard Brexit". This includes an outcome whereby no EU-UK trade deal is reached and we end up with tariffs on trade with the UK and no freedom of movement of people. This would not be good news for Ireland, adding to complexity and costs and hindering cross-Border business and talent flows," he says.
However, there could be good news as well according to the findings of recent KPMG research on UK chief executive attitudes to Brexit.
"Our UK research shows a majority of British CEOs are now assessing the possibility of relocating their headquarters or operations outside the UK and this will present some opportunity for Ireland," Murphy says.
"CEOs have never had so much to contend with. Irish CEOs share many of the same issues and concerns as their global counterparts, facing the likelihood of many forms of disruption to their companies and finding ways to pre-empt them. It is human nature to be wary of the unknown and much of what we are living through today really is on the scale of another industrial revolution."
Download the full report at kpmg.ie/ceooutlook
This article was originally published in The Irish Times on 6 October 2016 and is reproduced here with their kind permission.