Has Innovation Hit a Wall?

This week’s Mobile World Congress is all about the latest in digital mobility. But are there enough breakthroughs?

With more than 115,000 attendees, this year’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona is yet another reminder of the growing power of digital mobility—and how it underpins all we do in our work and personal lives. 

But while the conference themes focus on everything from leveraging faster network speeds to the future of the Internet of Things to any technology that integrates our lives through smartphones, dazzling innovations seem more incremental to many here than in the past. Peter Cave-Gibbs, senior client partner for Global Technology Markets at Korn Ferry, says leaders are still wrestling with how best to deploy capital and talent and which areas to prioritize with respect to digital innovation.

“They are working through how to plug innovation into their organizations, whether that be through funding or acquiring startups, training and developing their own talent, or other means,” says Cave-Gibbs, who hosted a dinner during the conference for about 20 leaders in the tech, telecom, and financial sectors. 

Indeed, PwC estimates that worldwide research and development spending among the world’s 1,000 largest corporate R&D spenders increased only 3.2% in 2017 to $702 billion, despite the accelerating pace of digital disruption. Moreover, according to a PwC survey of more than 1,200 senior leaders in 44 countries, 54% of them struggle to align innovation strategy with business strategy. Put another way, slow decision-making is holding up tech-enabled breakthroughs. 

“Organizations are becoming complex ecosystems, with blurred lines between internal and external partners and competitors,” says Paul Dinan, senior client partner and Global Technology Markets leader at Korn Ferry. “There is a need for real agility in terms of operating models, performance management, and job design to allow for more flexible organizations and roles, with less focus on structure and hierarchy and more focus on governance, decision rights, and shared goals and purpose.”

But by far the biggest concern leaders voiced at the Mobile World Congress is how to attract and retain the talent needed to spur digital innovation. Much discussion has centered on the digital skills gap, but little progress has been made to narrow it. For instance, by 2020, according to a Gartner study, 30% of tech jobs will be unfilled owing to digital talent shortfalls. To address the discrepancy between available talent and needed innovation, organizations need to diversify where and what kind of talent they look for. “Traits and drivers are becoming more important than skills because they determine an employee’s ability to change and evolve,” Dinan says. “The smartest companies are looking beyond typical tech talent pools to find talent with those traits and then quickly training and developing them on the technical skills.”

Until business goals and talent development are aligned, however, experts say innovation will remain more incremental than breakthrough.