The survey, which is being released Tuesday, was conducted largely via face-to-face interviews by the IBM Institute for Business Value. It includes the views of a massive sample of top executives: More than 5,200 global C-suite managers such as CEOs, chief financial officers and chief marketing officers. Again and again, their fears of getting caught unaware by these "digital invaders" were among the top concerns they shared in the interviews and surveys.
"I can’t begin to tell you how much [they talked about] disruption that comes from an unlikely competitor outside of our industry before we can see the competition coming," said Linda Ban, IBM's global C-suite study director. The study found 54 percent of C-suite executives expect to deal with that type of competition, a significant jump from the 43 percent who said so in 2013.
The angst over getting struck by their industry's equivalent to Uber is, of course, not exactly brand new. Ever since Clayton Christensen wrote "The Innovator's Dilemma," CEOs have been looking over their shoulder for unexpected disruptive technologies that might upend their company. But the frequency with which it's happening, and the way in which the upstarts are reshaping whole industries rather than just slowly pushing out veteran players, is what's keeping executives running scared.
"They’ve watched this happen — where another organization can come in and disrupt the business without having infrastructure, assets or armies of people," Ban said. "They’re looking at that and saying, now where do I look for my Uber?"
The study also found that top executives of all stripes see "industry convergence" — such as the combining of sectors like health care and consumer electronics to form consumer-health gadgets like Fitbit — will be the biggest trend over the next three to five years, followed by an increasingly mobile workforce and growing cyber risks.
Two years ago, I.T. security was of little concern to executives regarding issues with new technologies; now, 68 percent of respondents say it's their top risk.
And for the first time in the 18 times IBM has completed its C-suite study, executives across the board agreed that technological changes would have the biggest impact on their business over the next three to five years, more than other issues such as regulatory concerns, globalization and shortages of people skills.
But to counter these growing technology challenges, top executives are still relying on some pretty old-fashioned approaches. Only about 23 percent said they were using methods like crowdsourcing to identify trends, and just roughly half are using tech-driven simulations to help predict the future.