The Economic Times

Challenges & growth: Strategy in an era of continuous uncertainty

Challenges & growth: Strategy in an era of continuous uncertainty

After six years in economic doldrums—and despite the US market's rally—many business leaders across the globe still seem paralysed when it comes to growth strategies.

  • min read


Challenges & growth: Strategy in an era of continuous uncertainty

This article first appeared on The Economic Times.

After six years in economic doldrums —and despite the US market's rally —many business leaders across the globe still seem paralysed when it comes to growth strategies.

For example, mergers and acquisitions are down 14% globally since 2008 and have plummeted 35% in Europe. Massive amounts of cash are piling up on balance sheets. This hoard instinct represents $1.4 trillion in corporate cash and cash equivalents sitting idle in nonfinancial S&P 500 companies through late last year, up 69% from 2007. Growth rates in Bric nations have also fallen since 2010, with India and Brazil witnessing sharp declines, leading to greater caution among investors and companies in these markets.

We're in the midst of the longest and most perplexing recessionary period ever. Despite all this, two factors are fairly clear: one, business leaders have always lived with uncertainty. Two, if money is not invested to spur real growth, expansion and innovation, it's certain that none of these will occur. The already-dizzying rate of change is accelerating. This is especially evident in the technology sector. For instance, Apple recently declared it will soon halt support for its original iPhone, introduced in June 2007.

This short lifespan — from innovation phenomenon to antique in six years — defines today's business environment. In that same period, Samsung vaulted ahead of cash-rich Apple in R&D and marketing spending. In only 10 years, Samsung went from entering to leading the global flash-memory market. In three years, it went from entering the global smartphone market seriously to leading it. Today, Samsung is the world's largest technology company by revenue. Samsung's expansion illustrates not only the speed of change but also the blurring of industry borders.

Companies that hesitate can be eclipsed by the proverbial entrepreneur in a garage and by competitors from different geographies. This is why chief executives need to scan the horizon for competitors' moves and act. Business leaders can anticipate change by understanding that a lot of what seems like uncertainty is actually unfamiliarity. For example, executives long understood that capital was scarce and talented people abundant. Neither is true now. Today, businesses must hoard talent.

A current shortage of 10 million highly-skilled workers could grow to 95 million by the end of the decade, according to estimates. Meanwhile, the world is awash in capital. Some is on the sidelines but more will arise from developing nations. We estimate the global capital pool will expand 50% by the end of the decade. We need to develop sophisticated strategies to anticipate and find opportunities in asset bubbles. Here's another unfamiliar certainty: the global population is ageing. We know with certainty by how many people and where.

What's less certain to companies is how to respond. This, however, can be a great opportunity. Take cosmetics, for example: while 81% of 18- to 49-year-old women use cosmetics and skincare products weekly, so do 80% of women aged 60-69, and 75% of women over age 70. One cosmetics firm has seized on this as a golden opportunity. Developed through research on ageing skin, it is offering a line of beauty products to one of the largest and fastest-growing segments in the world: women over 60!

In contrast, India's population is young — nearly 60% are under the age of 30 — raising the prospect of a "demographic dividend" for years to come. This means millions of new consumers entering the market, creating opportunities for companies to grow. But this "consumption dividend" can be realised to its full potential only if India appropriately skills and creates employment for the 10-15 million people entering its workforce every year. This would mean setting up more professional schools, as South Korea and Germany have successfully done.

Despite these apparent advantages of differing demographics across markets, senior managers in varied geographies must still have considerable skill in the game of developing a strategy that both embraces uncertainty and pierces unfamiliarity. To put this in a mnemonic, what's needed is a new strategic "A" game: one that's alert, agile and able to move with alacrity.

The writer is chairman, Bain & Co. Co-authored with Sri Rajan, managing director of the firm in India.


Ready to talk?

We work with ambitious leaders who want to define the future, not hide from it. Together, we achieve extraordinary outcomes.