Technology & Innovation

Amid digital disruption, French executives must focus on the customer experience

March 19, 2018


March 19, 2018


French companies are waking up to the urgency of digital transformation and demand for digital leaders is growing.

French business leaders have largely welcomed the recent labour law reforms championed by Président Emmanuel Macron [1]. They hope for a boost to productivity through greater employment flexibility. They will need all they can get as France plays digital catch-up.

There is often a feeling that corporate France has trailed other nations in facing up to digital disruption, thinks Malika Mir, group chief digital officer at biopharmaceutical company Ipsen, based in Paris. That situation is evolving fast.

“I have noticed a big, big change over the last three years. As always in France, we may be a bit slow to start but when people are suddenly aware it is time to move on, we can really catch up,” she says.

“Pharma is also behind, like the banks. It is an environment that has been very regulated over the last 15 years, so people are not always so agile. They rely on compliance and regulation before taking risks. It is built into the system,” she adds.

The cost and time involved in testing and bringing new drugs to market mean the pace of corporate adaptation can be naturally slow. The launch of healthcare-related incubators and hi-tech partnerships should hurry things along.

More broadly, according to our recent survey of French, German, Dutch and British executives, just over half of French executives (56%) believe that digital disruption has affected their companies in the last three years. This is on par with a 55% average of all four nations. And the French rank alongside their British peers (65%), and just behind German respondents (68%) in believing their companies have responded successfully to the challenge.

French leaders also expect more digital disruption ahead. In terms of the intensity of change, one in ten expect the disruption will be “significant” over the next three years–only German respondents expect more.

There are subtle nuances to where and how digital may present an opportunity in France. More French managers believe that digital technology will enable their companies to deliver a better customer experience than not (54%), but it will come at a cost. More than half (58%) think core processes must be redesigned to achieve their goals and 61% say that new roles and skills are required to be successful–significantly above average in both cases.

Those Macron-inspired labour changes may also be useful. Nearly six in ten (57%) of French executives believe digital disruption has removed the need for some roles within their organisations (see charts).

These factors help explain why the corporate response looks different in France. On average across our four countries, improving the customer experience is the priority (40%), but not in France where transforming how the company and staff work is just ahead (41%).

A new focus needs new skills

At a departmental level, however, customer services (28%) and cost reduction (27%) lead French executive priorities.

At Ipsen, the customer has to be front and centre of all new digital IT projects, Ms Mir explains. “There is a big difference in the way I used to do IT and how I now work in the new digital environment. The customer experience focus is coming back and playing a critical role. When you are undertaking digital projects, you are obliged to start from the customer pain point,” she says.

Tackling the digital switchover requires a greater degree of cooperation and integration within Ipsen. It also means more interaction externally, with healthcare professionals and the broader pathology ecosystem, as well as patients themselves. The pace of change in pharmaceuticals, treatments and technology means that the IT function must be more agile and more open to shifting agendas and needs.

“Instead of working in silos like we used to in IT, we need to be far more collaborative and humble enough to accept that we do not always know the answer,” admits Ms Mir.

That makes the job more interesting and varied. It also highlights the need for new skill sets.

Ten years ago, companies sought executives with specific skills in accounting systems or CRM software to lead their IT departments, he explains. “Today, that has shifted towards a Chief Information Officer who is must be more business-orientated. It is your soft skills that make the big difference, not just your technical skills anymore,” says Ms Mir.

The CIO role is now one of a business partner, rather than just an implementer of technology. Across the sector and more broadly across the French economy, Ms Mir sees an increase in the number of CIOs reporting directly to their Chief Executives, not to the finance officer or via a support organisation structure.

“You need a strong understanding of the business you are in, in addition to a good background in technology in order to be the link between the two,” she says.

In healthcare, the pace of change and shift in skillsets has left some IT executives unsettled. It is not yet clear where the final corporate and professional destinations lie, nor the direction of travel.

Strong collaboration skills and an ability to manage uncertainty will help. IT managers also need to accept the occasional failure along the way and the humility to “fail fast” when that happens, thinks Ms Mir.

In pharmaceuticals, at least, Ms Mir thinks the current crop of IT leaders can take comfort that their future progression is assured. Competition for experienced staff is strong. Direct rivals and firms in unrelated sectors are all fighting to attract the same candidates with the right balance of “hard” technical and “soft” human skills.

“There is a war of talent. Recruitment is a nightmare,” she says.

Nearly 60% of French survey respondents agree with her (59%), believing that digital disruption will benefit their professional ambitions. They are also more likely to agree that their current role and company provide them with the tools to tackle whatever the digital revolution throws at them next (56%).

Future IT leaders should feel comfortable too. As Ms Mir points out, the next generation of IT professionals is already in high demand.

“For young people, they do not need to look for a job, the jobs come to them. For all those currently studying, they need a digital component no matter what subject they are studying, not just the students in IT,” concludes Ms Mir.

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