Grant Thornton International surveyed 943 Technology, Media and Telecoms (TMT) business leaders, as part of the Global business research on their reactions to 2020, their outlook for 2021 and how they are preparing for future challenges. The research revealed five key trends that resonated with industry leaders around the world. The team asked a panel of our experts from UK, US, India Ireland and Germany, to give their reaction to the findings.
1. Growing optimism in TMT
Research revealed a growing sense of optimism across all business sectors, with 57% of TMT business leaders either slightly or very optimistic about the economic outlook over the next 12 months, up from 43% the previous half year.
Steven Perkins, National Leader – Technology and Telecommunications, Grant Thornton US, recognises a general feeling of expectancy in the market: “In the US this has been mirrored by strong growth among large tech companies and emerging tech. M&A and Private Equity activity is very strong, as are IPOs and SPACs.”
The outlook in India is equally positive according to Raja Lahiri, Partner, Grant Thornton India. “What was expected initially to be a tough year for start-ups has witnessed one of the highest private equity and venture capital funding levels. With 30+ unicorns, India now stands in the top three start-up destinations and we expect the tech sector to lead M&A and investment deals in 2021 as well.”
Though overall TMT businesses are more confident than any other industry apart from financial services, the research shows the sentiment is less uniform: while 80% of media and 67% of tech firms are optimistic about the economy, just 48% of telecoms share this sentiment, and 44% describe their outlook as pessimistic.
Hanno Hepke, Partner and Head of Media and Telecommunications at Warth & Klein Grant Thornton in Germany, notes strong differences between the sectors in TMT in Europe. “In media we can see that advertising-driven businesses and models have suffered and are under pressure, though the pandemic also precipitated the shift to digital advertising, creating growth. There is much more optimism in technology and digitisation has accelerated leading to further investment.”
For Nick Watson, Partner and Global Head of TMT Industry, Grant Thornton UK, the optimism stems from the ability of technology businesses to adapt quickly to the changing times. “A higher proportion of TMT firms report higher revenue growth, investment in people and export growth compared to the rest of the market, but technology shows the largest difference. It illustrates the underlying robustness of technology business models characterised by high levels of recurring revenue (giving you a stable base to grow from), alongside inherent scalability.”
Michael Shelley, Head of TMT Industry, Grant Thornton Ireland agrees. “With nine out of ten of the largest US technology companies located in Ireland as well as the top 5 global software companies, there is huge optimism around tech companies and we can see that in the rate at which they are expanding.
With growing optimism, now is the time to review investments to position your business for new opportunities. Diversify, digitise and develop are our three watchwords for the year ahead.
There is always the unknown around global tax and what this will mean but the TMT industry in Ireland is thriving and this is expected to continue for the foreseeable future.”
Similar trends were noted by Dr Antonio Pooe, Head of Forensic Services at SNG Grant Thornton in South Africa. "The hard lockdown drove a surge in demand and adoption of IT solutions. The supply side of connectivity solutions - in particular 4G/5G, LTE and fibre - saw an increase in participants which drove data prices downwards," shares Antonio.
2. Lockdown unlocks demand for some
Despite a sharp reduction in global economic activity due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the sudden shift to remote working in lockdown, with the need for better business technology and communications solutions, has boosted demand in some parts of the TMT industry. 42% of media firms and 34% of tech firms (compared to 23% across other sectors) reported export growth of over 5%.
Meanwhile 21% of tech firms moved into new geographic markets (compared to 12% across all industries), with a sizeable 46% of firms expecting exports to increase. The global trend towards working from home looks set to continue, according to Nick. “We think this confidence reflects that pockets of technology have seen demand accelerate during the crisis. Tools that help organisations move to remote, or operate with fewer people have generally been beneficiaries of COVID-19. Many of the owner-managers we speak to think that changes in behaviour are likely to be permanent: providing a stable base for further growth.”
Raja observes a similar trend: “India has seen enhanced client demands around digital, cloud, data storage and AI. Top tech services companies have witnessed robust revenue growth with large deal wins and pipeline across global clients.” However, for Steven, the drivers for new growth reach back to before the pandemic: “Anecdotally, we are beginning to see increased capital spending by US tech firms deferred from the early days of the pandemic, including Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) upgrades, digitisation and process transformation.”
Carry out a portfolio review of your services and products in the light of the uneven impact of the pandemic. Aim for agility; now could be the time to invest in ongoing product development and new ways of engaging with people to keep the orders coming in.
The UK could see a similar trend, agrees Nick: “Digital transformation is a board-level agenda item for organisations of all sizes and sectors. Most are just at the start of their digital transformation journey so there is huge scope to provide products and services to meet this demand. Offerings could range from contractors and developers to modernise UI, to big ticket items like switches and emerging areas like SaaS-based workflow tools.”
3. It’s time to put resilience before profit
The generally optimistic outlook amongst TMT firms was balanced by cautious projections of business performance ahead. Research showed that less than 50% of firms expect revenues and profits to increase over the next 12 months, a figure that fell slightly from the first half of 2020, though this remains some nine percentage points above businesses in general.
While the general outlook is confident, businesses are perhaps happy to be conservative in their approach, and to look to build up their core strengths and resilience in readiness for future opportunities.
Focus on keeping your cost bases lean so you can move swiftly and take advantage of the market opportunities.
“Technology firms continue to be characterised by high levels of R&D to maintain their competitive advantage,” explains Nick. “We think the best firms are characterised by a good balance between R&D and sales and marketing costs, with this balance driven by a razorlike focus on quantitative and qualitative metrics that drive the business.
“The relatively high level of hiring is interesting alongside this with 26% of TMT firms responding that they had grown staff levels by more than 5%. We think a significant proportion of TMT businesses are willing to forego short-term profits to create larger, more profitable, long-term opportunities,” Nick shares.
4. Talent, energy and demand – three barriers to business
Despite the good news, TMT firms are more worried about constraints than most other industries. Economic uncertainty tops the constraint list, with 63% of technology firms citing this as a concern, followed by the availability of skilled workforce and energy costs (both at 55%) and shortage of orders/reduced demand (54%). In fact, while growth in demand is increasing in some areas, over 50% of firms still anticipate that a shortage of orders is likely to hamper business performance over the next 12 months.
In response to concerns over the availability of skilled workers and labour costs, 55% of telecoms, 49% of tech firms and, to a lesser extent, media firms (28%), expect to increase investment in staff skills. Therefore, more businesses may choose to develop talent in-house as an answer to the skills shortage.
Investing in your people, their skills, and your culture is essential if you want to retain and mobilise your best people and attract new talent. Effective ongoing communication and engagement is key.
It’s a picture that rings true for the US, says Steve: “The availability of skilled labour is a continuing challenge in the US. The tech industry has immigration, workforce and STEM among the top 10 policy issues that need to be addressed.
As constraints continue to bite, CFOs and COOs continue to be frugal, watching the pipeline carefully. I expect the trend to lower non-customer spend to continue going forward, as businesses continue to harvest improved profits through remote work and less internal travel.”
Raja agrees: “One of the challenges is digital skilling of the workforce and Indian tech companies need to invest a lot to re-skill and enhance the digital workforce. The pandemic has also shifted the focus of Indian IT firms to restructure their working models, from an on-shore and off-shore delivery model to potentially a hybrid working model, with significant work that can be done from home or anywhere.”
5. Risk and red tape – a necessary evil?
As fast as developments like Cloud computing and AI have become the norm, innovations such as the Internet of Things and Edge Computing bring exciting new opportunities for growth and development, but also fresh risks and a potential increase in regulation. Our research shows that TMT firms remain concerned about the prevailing risk environment, benchmarking poorly against other industries. Over 50% of firms also express concerns with regulatory red tape, continuing a recent trend that may be linked to global protectionism and targeting of the TMT industry in particular.
Raja has witnessed such a cycle in India’s IT & ITeS sector: “Major companies have adopted various IT solutions as a part of their business continuity plans. There has also been a surge in the modes of digital payments. However, this dependency on IT solutions has also led to a significant increase in cybercrime cases, such as phishing and gateway security.”
"Data privacy and cybersecurity remains a concern and the data privacy legislation is scheduled to become fully effective by end of June 2021," says Antonio, referring to the market in South Africa. "Spectrum auctioning/allocation has not been finalised and it’s a matter that is now in courts. Investments in automation, digitisation and adoption of other technologies such as artificial intelligence is a focus on agenda for 2021 and beyond for many businesses."
Today’s fast changing regulatory environment can impact every aspect of your business from current operations to ongoing strategy. Make sure you implement steps to mitigate risks and deal with threats.
Steven recognises the issue as one that resonates globally: “The pandemic response highlighted the essential, foundational role that tech plays in underpinning the economy, society and government.
This trend has been accelerated and will continue in the post pandemic world, a fact that has drawn the increased scrutiny of policymakers and regulators. Privacy, security, content, access, competition, trade, balkanization, data flows, fair share of taxation – this list goes on. The lack of consistent rules at global, regional, country and local levels makes the monitoring of and compliance with the rules increasingly risky and expensive for tech companies.”
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