By its very nature, disruption risk - the failure to keep pace with new technological developments, competitor activity, customer demand or market shifts - challenges the status quo. These risks can hit fast or be a ‘slow burn’, where firms are too slow to recognise that customer wants are changing, and then fail to change when it becomes clear that their strategy isn’t working.

So, it should be no surprise that disruption is ranked second overall in the technology category of risks behind cyber. However, it edges into the top spot for UK participants who appear to feel this risk more acutely than their US counterparts.

How fast can businesses respond?

Whether disruption is instant or slow burn, it can reconfigure the value chain and be difficult to recognise and respond to, particularly if businesses have extensive bureaucracy to wade through, or a poor track record of ensuring their tech firepower cannot be outgunned by others with a sharper vision or deeper pockets. Disruption risks can also materialise if businesses fail to change, even when it is clear that their strategy isn’t working.

On both sides of the Atlantic, the potential for disruptive technology to impact sectors where there is real innovative capability includes health, life science, manufacturing, financial services and real estate. Over a third (36%) of real estate companies rank disruption risk their top concern. In the US the industry which ranks disruption risk highest is healthcare and life science, in the UK this honour is won hands down by manufacturing, where 44% of business leaders rank disruption risk top.

The real dilemma for businesses is often not whether they need to change, but how fast without destabilising existing business models and revenue streams.

The impact of bricks or clicks

The traditional real estate model has been profoundly challenged in recent years by the advent of online sales businesses, comparison (aggregator) websites and even ‘sale by owner’ models. Manufacturing and healthcare likewise are two sectors that have been dramatically changed by the advent of new technology. While manufacturing has been transformed by automation, in healthcare we are seeing a step change in treatments based on advances in molecular biology and genomics, plus radical business model changes under the banner of digital health, telehealth and telemedicine.

33% of hospitality companies in the US, which traditionally have relied on physical proximity to customers also rank disruption risk top, and interestingly this view is broadly consistent in the UK where 32% do the same. It is likely that this reflects two factors - high levels of disturbance through the pandemic and the threat from alternative forms of entertainment that have thrived under lockdowns.

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Governments are keen to understand transformative technologies and to identify which have the potential to profoundly disintermediate established ways of doing business - be that 5G, low orbit satellites, CRISPR gene editing, genomics, quantum computing, AI, or machine learning. They are thinking how to hedge their economies against profound disruption plays.

Alex Creswell, OBEStrategic Adviser, Beazley
Sector view on disruption risk
Percentage of US and UK companies ranking disruption risk top, 2021.
Please click on the legend boxes to view the different data points.

TMT needs a closer look

We are surprised that technology, media and telecoms (TMT) executives do not rate the threat of disruption more highly, particularly in the US, where only 19% rank it top compared with 38% in the UK. This significant difference may reflect the broad spread of businesses within this category and their representation within our sample data, or the difficulty in anticipating the risks of disruptive technologies, business model, and external market factors. While media companies may feel less exposed to disruption, for example, telecoms businesses are at undoubted high risk both due to the rollout of new technology (5G) and uncertainty over key players.

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Political rhetoric on both sides of the Atlantic indicates that governments will be more proactive in defending critical national infrastructure - including the commercial elements of this such as 5G mobile internet infrastructure. It is still unclear which companies will dominate provision of 5G. It is possible that large internet companies such as Facebook and Amazon will build dominant roles as 5G carriers.

Alex Creswell, OBE Strategic Adviser, Beazley

A sense of resilience in regulated sectors

Real estate is clearly a sector where business leaders feel they have weathered the storm and are now well positioned for growth post-pandemic. 44% of real estate leaders across the US and UK feel ‘very prepared’ to anticipate and respond to disruption risk, with comfort levels 12 percentage points higher than in the UK.

Another sector where executives feel more resilient to this risk is energy and utilities, where businesses have become adept at dealing with disruption more generally - for example from new energy sources, new producers, new models of distribution and not least from the regulators. Business leaders in the UK are notably positive in this regard - 51% feeling ‘very prepared’ to manage disruption compared to 39% in the US.

In general, highly regulated businesses have to be good at risk management, which may also help explain the relatively strong resilience scores by TMT, financial and professional services firms and from public sector and education.

Sector view on resilience to disruption risk
Percentage of US and UK companies feeling ‘very prepared’ to anticipate and respond to disruption risk in 2021.
Please click on the legend boxes to view the different data points.

Disruption risk set to stay second fiddle to cyber

When asked to look ahead to 2022, business leaders continue to rank disruption risk as the second most significant risk in the technology category. Overall, 29% of business leaders ranked it as their top risk in 12 months’ time, a single percentage point lower than in 2021.