Amid pandemic, top CEOs say digital transformation is accelerating. Where it’s headed? Less clear

In the end, there was really only one question to ask an all-star panel of CEOs assembled for a Fortune CEO Initiative virtual event held Tuesday about leadership in challenging times:

How has the novel coronavirus pandemic affected business?

“Acceleration of the future,” Intel CEO Bob Swan offered, rather succinctly, after silently listening to his peers’ responses. “Clarity of the future? Not so sure.”

Swan joined Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, Accenture CEO Julie Sweet, and HP CEO Enrique Lores in an hourlong discussion led by Fortune‘s own chief executive, Alan Murray.

The other tech executives were in strong agreement with Swan. All said corporations—their executives, partners, employees, and shareholders, across all industries—were seeing the pace of change dramatically accelerate, but only some of the CEOs were willing to guess the direction of that change.

“We are in a point of time which is really going to be defining for our lifetime,” said Lores, citing examples in health and education. “We are talking about the future of work, but we’re experiencing it today.” The HP CEO added as way of an example that he has spent “more than 1,000 hours in video conferences in the last three months.”

His peers knowingly chuckled.

Business change comes in many forms. Reflecting on their own companies, the executives described shifts in their supply chains, in the geopolitical landscape, and in the “very personal” (to use Lores’ words) ways individuals are working from homes they share with pets, family members, and furniture not intended for full-time productivity.

“This is the most unprecedented situation,” said Nadella. We’re running a massive experiment at scale.”

The Microsoft CEO took pains to say that he didn’t want to proclaim that the present situation is our collective future: “It’s a little bit too early, I think.” But he did offer three examples of clear change.

The first: How we collaborate. Meetings are transactional, Nadella said; real work happens around them. As white-collar work shifts to virtual spaces, “we’re burning up a lot of the social capital that we all built working together,” he said. We’re able to stay productive because we built social capital working in physical spaces, but there’s more cognitive load in the virtual environment. That needs to be addressed, he said.

The second: How we learn. “Corporations are about learning and knowledge creation,” Nadella said, but the old mechanisms for achieving that are disappearing. Businesses need better ways to upskill and re-skill employees for a new operating environment, he said.

The third: How we achieve well-being. “We just can’t measure productivity in the narrowest way,” Nadella said. According to Microsoft’s own research, most people—especially younger workers—are “burnt out” after 30 minutes on a video call. How do you combat that in a world of back-to-back virtual meetings?

And then there’s the matter of the big picture. “We need to have better measurements” for corporate innovation in this pandemic environment, Nadella added, so as not to lose sight of long-term goals. “You can be productive burning down a backlog,” he said. “But are you creating new?”

Sweet, whose professional services company is focused on helping companies achieve digital transformation, warned that companies are great at acquiring transformational technology but often fail at changing or simplifying how they work in response to it.

“This is the largest behavioral change at one time in history,” she said of the pandemic. “It exposes a lot of the flaws in companies.”

Sweet offered a statistic to underscore her point: Artificial intelligence spend among corporations has accelerated by 60%, but only 3% of executives also invest in employee training for the capability.

“How do we build into this acceleration the ability to be more responsible businesses?” she asked.

Swan said the COVID-19 pandemic, social injustice protests, and changing geopolitical dynamics will continue to influence the trajectory of global business.

“The interconnect of these three things is changing virtually everything,” the Intel chief said. “At the most simple level, it’s going to accelerate the role that the CEO plays…to be in the here and now.”

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