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The success of digital transformation will depend above all on "the ability of business leaders to make the right decisions so they do not fall behind"

by Guillaume Chevillon (Professor of Economics & Statistics at ESSEC Business School, Academic Codirector of the Metalab for Data, Technology & Society) and Laure Salvaing (Managing Director, Verian Group –formerly Kantar public – a consulting and opinion research company)

A survey of major French groups shows that companies' digital strategy remains unclear, observe economics professor Guillaume Chevillon and Laure Salvaing, Director of the Verian opinion research institute, in an article for Le Monde.

Ever since the appearance of ChatGPT made the power of artificial intelligence (AI) and its capacity for transformation tangible to all, many have worried about its impact on the economy and society. If this "intelligence" overtakes us, a tsunami may destroy our professions and render us useless. If, on the other hand, we know how to drive it, it will accompany us towards new horizons, like a co-pilot complementing our humanity.

We sometimes think that the answer to this question will come from our individual capacities to adapt, and from our collective abilities to transform ourselves and support those who seem to lose out of this transformation.


Making the right decisions


In reality, the answer lies above all in the ability of companies and their leaders to make the right decisions to keep pace with the times. Otherwise, we risk a crisis similar to the one experienced by the steel industry after the Second World War, which led to so much misfortune in French industrial regions as well as in the Rust Belt of the American Great Lakes. But this new "deindustrialization" would then affect the service sector, which is today the main driver of our economy.


To assess the state of digital data and AI in France, Verian (formerly Kantar Public) and ESSEC Metalab for Data, Technology & Society have been conducting annual surveys since 2020, this year in partnership with Claranet, for the French Tech Corporate Community, formerly Mission interministérielle pour les grands groupes. We assess the perception of professions, jobs and training by the heads of digital activities and human resources in major French companies. In doing so, we are able to identify both progress and weaknesses.


In 2024, most of these managers have taken the measure of the revolution underway: 69% say that the exploitation and management of data take a central or very important place in their activity, a gain of 19 points in two years. Awareness is finally widespread, with 87% of respondents stating that their managers are very aware of the challenges of digital data (its collection, analysis and governance), and 70% indicating that their company has taken up the issues of generative AI or has begun to implement actions.


Surprisingly, while managers are quite satisfied with themselves - 39% think they're further ahead than their competitors in data management and usage, and only 19% think they're lagging behind - this self-congratulation doesn't necessarily seem to lead to a clearly defined strategy. Indeed, 50% of companies are still finding it difficult to assess their recruitment needs.


Where are the thorough plans?


What's more, at a time when European regulations are multiplying, companies consider themselves to be below average when it comes to their commitment to complying with future regulations on the different categories of algorithms and managing the associated risks. 

Finally, 72% of them claim to be carrying out virtually no reflection or projects on emerging trends in data and AI. Given this situation, it's hardly surprising that the number of companies planning to recruit in these professions in the coming months is falling.


And yet, investing in data and AI professions seems essential for future value creation and to avoid any loss of competitiveness. It's not just a question of recruiting engineers or computer scientists, but of working at the interface between current jobs and technology to avoid the obsolescence of professions.


To achieve this, we need to invest in people and training. Undoubtedly, these are new professions, and recruiters are not yet able to find their way around hybrid training courses combining scientific disciplines with social and management sciences, or even the humanities: 50% of respondents still find it difficult to identify the right training courses (although this figure will rise to 72% in 2021).


54,000 euros for a beginner


Above all, it seems that they don't know how to make the most of them, as 21% of companies say that the biggest obstacle to recruitment is high salary expectations.

And yet, according to data from recruitment website Glassdoor, the average salary of an entry-level data scientist in Paris is 25% lower than in Berlin (respectively, 54,000 euros and 71,000 euros), despite the cost-of-living differential in favor of the German capital.


We certainly also need to work on improving training in France. While assessments of current higher education courses are improving - with 62% believing they are of a good standard compared to those offered abroad (+9 points in one year) - only 50% say they are sufficiently linked to the business world, and a small minority (35%) think they are sufficient in number, even though the number is growing every year.


While major groups are showing a willingness to get organized in the face of ongoing transformation, not all of them seem to have a clear strategy. While the emergence of generative AI should encourage us all to understand its uses and utilities, still 7% of companies claim to have reduced training and career development for people working in data and AI professions.

If major French companies were to fall behind in international competition, the risk they would pose to our economy and our shared future would be major.


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