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First Word: Illuminating the Digital Journey Ahead


Digital revenues will double between 2015 and 2018, according to our recent study, and slow-movers are already paying a heavy “Laggard Penalty.” Here are some insights into what it will take to succeed with the work ahead.

For many companies, embarking on digital transformation is like entering the great unknown without a compass. While it can be intimidating to navigate the uncharted territory, every organization needs to define and gauge the impending scope, scale and transformative impact of digital on its own terms. Taking a wait-and-watch approach is exactly what companies cannot afford to do. Success, to some degree, pivots on developing an intimate understanding of what lies ahead.

In this spirit, Cognizant’s Center for the Future of Work surveyed top executives around the globe, as well as futurists and MBA students, to illuminate how the digital world is taking shape. What became immediately apparent is how quickly things are moving. For the 2,000 companies we studied, digital drove $364 billion in revenue in 2015. By 2018, the estimate doubles to $770 billion in revenue per year — or a staggering $2.3 trillion in gross revenue across all companies we studied.

Clearly, the longer companies take to get on board the digital express, the more money they stand to lose in untapped revenues.

The Laggard Penalty

Companies that lag behind their peers in pursuing digital initiatives pay a large annual “Laggard Penalty” — the difference in both cost and revenue gains influenced by digital technologies. This penalty only increases over time. In fact, the Laggard Penalty is projected to grow from $262.5 billion across the companies we studied, to a massive $1.3 trillion by 2018. 

The penalty is especially severe in certain industries. In financial services, for instance, digital leaders are realizing, on average today, a total economic impact from digital of about 7.4% of costs and revenues vs. 3.1% for digital laggards — a 139% economic advantage.

Although the actual amount will vary depending on numerous factors, such as the industry, level of digital maturity and region, the average penalty across all industries is about $692 million between 2015 and 2018. 

The Future Shape of Work

Businesses are optimistic about how work will improve when digital technologies are applied to customer experiences and back-office work. A vast majority (87%) expect personal productivity to increase, and most anticipate improvements in over a dozen job aspects, including efficiency, collaboration, creativity, innovation, customer service, job satisfaction and work skills.

The incredible changes in the work ahead are, to a large extent, the result of the growing ubiquity and power of the new machines, which blend artificial intelligence, algorithms, automation and big data/analytics to drive business forward. 

Our respondents have a good read on how these new machines are now changing — and will continue to transform — business. Nearly all (97%) agreed that jobs and required skills will change significantly, particularly as their work becomes more strategic. Rote tasks — which still represent a substantial proportion of most individuals’ day-to-day work — will transition to the new machine, freeing up time and energy to ask better questions, craft better directions and generate more impactful innovations. 

This trend will not, respondents said, lead to large-scale headcount reductions. In fact, only one-third of our survey respondents believe it “very likely” that embedding greater levels of AI across the organization will result in reduced employment at their companies. 

Building the New Machine

We asked executives to name which forces would have the biggest impact on work between 2015 and 2018. The vast majority agreed that big data/analytics (99%) and AI (98%) will be the number one and two drivers of business change by 2018. Within that timeframe, every aspect of our commercial world (and much else besides) will be affected by the new machines. In short, the future of work is the mirror image of the future of AI.

Technologies that respondents said will matter most to business between now and 2020 are already in use today: cybersecurity, analytics, mobile, the cloud and sensors to instrument nearly every conceivable element of business. 

Looking ahead to 2025, the picture changes. Big data and analytics will still rank near the top, but other technologies — such as Internet of Things/sensors, cybersecurity and AI — will move up dramatically, and stay there.

With one notable exception — blockchain — all 10 of the technologies ranked as having a high impact on work by 2020 stayed in the top 10 for 2025. While blockchain’s impact is uncertain, its potential is so large that some leaders expect this technology to shape business in the coming years.

Looming Concerns Amid the Optimism

Despite their positive outlook, respondents were also clearly tuned into the obstacles and negative effects of technology on their lives and jobs. While it’s not surprising to see privacy top the list of concerns for 88% of respondents, it’s less expected to see dread about digital terrorism nearly tied for first place (87%). Fears about fraud and theft, already a daily reality for all of us, ranked high (86%), as did personal worries, such as becoming overwhelmed by information, job cuts and becoming disconnected from the natural world.

Interestingly, the MBA students and futurists we surveyed were less sanguine than the executives about the impact of technology. The students reported being overwhelmed with information, and concerned that they are losing their ability to think and process amid the digital deluge. They’re beginning to question the “always-on” environment in which they’ve grown up, and express worry that work demands are never more than a click away.

The Work Ahead

While digital transformation signals big change, senior leaders do not foresee major obstacles blocking their organizations’ digital pursuits (see Figure 1). Budget constraints top the list, but 71% of senior leaders don’t see funding as a major obstacle to becoming digital. Further, 75% of leaders don’t see security issues as a force powerful enough to stop the coming change.

Figure 1

If anything, digital transformation could do with a dose of reality, from the top-down. When we asked leaders how they thought their companies compared with their industry peers when it comes to benefiting from digital technologies, most said they were somewhere in the middle of the pack. But when asked what would happen by 2018, about 40% thought they’d be average, while 60% said they would be performing better than the rest of their industry — a mathematical impossibility.

The data shows — a bit painfully — that some of the future laggards still think they will be winners. The only way organizations can avoid this digital delusion is to take a hard look at the reality of where they are today. Conducting a digital audit is a good way for companies to assess where they stand.

Clearly, business leaders know that digital is vitally important, but our findings illustrate just how much is happening — fast. Organizations that don’t take the leap are missing critical opportunities to use new technologies to cut costs in the “old” and invent the “new.” The choices we make today will mean the difference between a hopeful future or an uncertain one.

To learn more, please see our full report, “The Work Ahead — Mastering the Digital Economy.”


Reshma Trenchil is a Senior Manager on Cognizant’s thought leadership team. She has 16 years of experience in business news and research. Before joining Cognizant, she worked in equity research at UBS and conducted research at Deloitte. She has a master’s degree from Boston University and a bachelor’s degree from Stella Maris College. She can be reached at

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