What if a storm hits us?

Strategy research among PwC customers battling turbulent times

The recent globalisation and digitalisation wave has brought numerous business enterprises into persistently turbulent waters, shaking them to their very foundations. One thing is clear: things have to change, and soon, too. But if a new course is to be charted, where should it point? To provide an effective answer to this question, PwC recently concluded a Prime Foundation Partnership focusing on ‘strategy in times of turbulence’. In the next few months, Vlerick will be asking six PwC customers ‘in full turbulence’ about their strategy. Read on for an interview with Axel Smits, Chairman of PwC Belgium, and Dean Marion Debruyne.

Axel Smits - PwCMr Smits, why have you chosen PwC to address the topic of strategy?

Axel Smits: “Simply put: strategy is the element that distinguishes PwC from the rest. Our motto is not ‘strategy through execution’ for nothing. All too often, strategy is seen as a separate, preliminary phase leading to an actual development, a runner-up to analysis, execution and reporting. We, however, see strategy as an inherent part of the change process. Recruiting Fernand Dimidschstein as a Strategy Partner should also be placed in that perspective.”

Axel Smits, Chairman PwC Belgium: “Strategy is an inherent part of the change process.”

The official title of the study is ‘Strategy in times of turbulence’. What are times of turbulence precisely?

Axel Smits: “Several years ago, numerous companies were shaken to their very foundations due to the increasing globalisation. These days, we are noticing that the trend towards globalisation is somewhat being deflected, partly on account of a number of nationalist reflexes. This does not mean in any way that the business world is entering more peaceful waters; digitalisation has become omnipresent in the meantime. This is also shaking companies to their core, and can be felt throughout all aspects of an organisation. If we wish to advise our clients on this, it is important that we substantiate this issue with current data obtained from companies.”

Marion Debruyne - Vlerick Business SchoolMarion Debruyne: “From an academic perspective, we have seen numerous companies grappling with new strategies in order to successfully cope with this dual challenge. Projected onto our own strategy, it is no coincidence that digital transformation and innovation are two pillars of knowledge that we regularly address in all the companies we work with. From our contacts in the corporate world and the research that we conduct jointly with companies, we are learning this: an important part of the solution for a strategic impasse can be found in ‘agility’, or the extent to which a company is able to quickly adjust to ongoing changes. At the same time, we see many senior managers breaking their teeth on exactly this. Having a vision – what goals do you want to achieve? – is one thing. Drawing up a corresponding strategy – how do you wish to achieve this goal? – and ensuring that this strategy is based on a ‘fair procedure’ for all parties involved, is a great deal more difficult. However, this buy-in is the absolute precondition for a successful change process.
This is why Professor Katleen De Stobbeleir not only focuses on ‘people’ and ‘structure’ within the Centre for Leading Agile Organisations, but also collaborates closely with Professor Stijn Viaene with regard to ‘processes’ and with Professor Carine Peeters for all matters associated with ‘strategy’. Professor Peeters is also the person who, together with researcher Caroline Baert, is leading this study in collaboration with PwC.”

Marion Debruyne, Dean of Vlerick: “We focus on four components at our Centre for Leading Agile Organisations: people, structure, processes and strategy.”

The qualitative study is built up out of six case studies: Vlerick is interviewing six companies from your client portfolio about their strategic decision-making processes. These are companies currently in the ‘turbulent zone’, meaning that they are rapidly as well as deeply affected by globalisation and digitalisation. On which criteria did PwC select these companies?

Axel Smits: “Our selection hinged on two specific criteria. On the one hand, we had to select clients with whom we are extremely familiar, and who we know will feel sufficiently at ease to discuss their strategy with us. At the same time, these had to be companies who had already defined a vision and strategy regarding their current market position, so that we could collect relevant data for a comparative study.”

What does PwC aim to achieve from this study?

Axel Smits: “I do not want to anticipate the results, but we hope to be able to define a reference framework based on objective facts. At PwC there is a good deal of knowledge and expertise, but it is increasingly important to subject this to a reality check from time to time. And this reality can, of course, be discerned in our day-to-day contact with the companies in our portfolio, as well as the results of academically-founded research among companies, like the study we are conducting with Vlerick.”

Are you interested in academically-founded research for your company?