Posted: 11 May 2021 4 min.

The changing role of the COO

Topic: Operational Excellence

It was in 1963 that Bob Dylan sang ‘The Times Are a-Changing’. He wanted to make an anthem of change and hope – and a tribute to the civil rights movement and the social revolution that came with it.

In 2021, the times are still a-changing, but in a different context. Technology is exponentially changing human potential, progressively pushing the boundaries of what is possible, and unlocking new amazing opportunities for businesses everywhere.

A year ago, many of us feared that the pandemic would pause or delay these important transformational journeys, but in fact, the opposite has happened: companies everywhere are accelerating digital and operational transformations to match the new reality, and the ambitions have never been higher. It’s very inspiring to see – and very inspiring to be a part of. In fact, when we close our 2020-21 fiscal year here at Deloitte Consulting this summer, we will have had one of our busiest years ever! That goes to show the magnitude of change that is taking place right now.

In my everyday work I speak to many companies about transformation, and in those conversations it has become clear to me that many COOs are taking an increasingly important and strategic role as organisations prepare for the future.

One way of seeing this shift is that while yesterday’s COOs were striving for operational excellence, tomorrow’s COOs will increasing have to see around corners and position their companies for sustained success, driving their organisations’ growth agenda in much bolder ways. To do this, COOs will need to harness the power of digital technology to explore new strategic possibilities, reset cost structures, identify new market opportunities with greater level of precision and ultimately build new sources of competitive advantage.

Technology is one thing, but COOs will also have to move closer to the market to understand the true drivers of differentiation, rather than just targeting cost and efficiency KPIs.

As such COOs will have to work to improve the overall customer experience, which is only possible if the organisation is capable of extracting and analysing large volumes of customer data to find the value drivers that otherwise would not be seen.

What to do going forward?
With these huge demands in the horizon, it’s safe to say that many COOs and operational leadership teams will be challenged going forward – and that many COOs will have to recalibrate their priorities, while maintaining a focus on cost-control and efficiency.

Here are three things to consider:

  1. Firstly, for those COOs that still lack a baseline understanding of new disruptive technologies and their potential applications, now is the time to get up to speed. Of course it’s natural to feel somewhat uncomfortable with the nuances, jargon, acronyms and complexity associated with the technology universe, but building a basic level of fluency is a necessary step for COOs to not only understand the new possibilities before them but also engage in a productive dialogue with their counterparts in IT. 
  2. Secondly, it is clear that technology offers many enhancement opportunities to create next-generation operational and transformational capabilities. Cloud technology can bring disparate data together, keep it current, make it readily available, and offer real-time, rich visualizations. Those technologies can help operational leadership teams better track market trends and new developments, make sense out of those signals more effectively, and quickly sort through options, for example, by using predictive analytics to simulate different strategic responses and their expected operational impact. 
  3. And finally, more and more COOs are becoming transformation champions in their organisation (which is also the reason why more and more CEOs are recruited directly from the COO position as opposed to viewing the CFO as the natural CEO successor). What I see is that, with growing frequency, the COO leads the strategic business planning and transformation initiatives that put corporate-level strategies into action. Here, the COO’s vision and propensity to adapt to change are now strategic differentiators in the marketplace. Effective COOs are already seeking to deepen their organisation’s capabilities across a variety of areas, striking the right balance between legacy business, innovative capability areas, market expansion and M&A.

To sum it up, as volatility, uncertainty and disruption have become the norm in today’s business world, more and more COOs will find themselves at the forefront of their organisations’ push towards greater agility in the face of seismic changes in demand, technology and data. It’s a challenging position, sure, but also extremely exciting. In the coming years, we will see who can sprint the quickest to transform, gain competitive advantage, and establish a strong presence for the future.

More about the author

Tore Christian Jensen

Tore Christian Jensen

Partner

As a part of the Strategy & Operations practice Tore has worked with analysis, development and implementation of operational strategies. Tore has deep experience with aligning business models to changing market demands through optimisation of business processes and aligning systems, organisation and governance accordingly. He has industry experience from manufacturing, transportation, consumer products and energy. His main focus is on on the operational core processes but he also covers administrative support processes. As a program manager Tore has been leading transformation projects for international clients heading multiple parallel projects and reporting directly to executive committee members. His responsibilities cover everything from initiating assessments, identifying opportunities for improvement to building business cases and following up by designing solutions and driving teams through implementation.