By Gerhard Hartman, Vice President, Medium Business, Sage Africa & Middle East
The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated many of the trends, particularly the growing reliance on digital, that have gained uptake in recent years. Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning have now become part of our work and life in ways we would never have imagined.
According to a report by McKinsey, there’s been an almost 25% year-on-year increase in business use of AI in response to the pandemic, with 63% of executives agreeing that it has contributed to revenue increases. Specifically in the finance function, automation has helped to streamline processes and save professionals’ precious time that is now being put to good use elsewhere. Yet, AI isn’t the only emerging technology driving digital innovation.
While AI plays a crucial role in shaping any digital transformation strategy – whether it’s basic robotic process automation or natural language processing capabilities, it cannot independently bring success – it needs to be part of a wider data integration and consolidation program. Only then will payroll and accounting, HR, and customer relationship management all collectively benefit from innovation at the operational level.
Next year, real innovation will happen around people. The necessity of remote working has stripped away many of the interactions and reactions we used to take for granted – whether that was going over to a colleague’s desk to ask a question or meeting a customer face-to-face. The challenges posed by remote working are gradually surfacing and being articulated by the world’s employees. Therefore, technological investment will focus on the people – the employees and customers who are integral to the business’s success.
To keep pace with our new remote age, new technologies that help workers stay happy, healthy, and productive while delivering stronger customer experiences will come into play.
Don’t forget about the cloud
AI often grabs the headlines, but the cloud was the real hero of business operations in the pandemic year. As intermittent lockdowns persist into the foreseeable future, it’s clear that organizations will only become more cloud-based to enable employees to work remotely and to keep customer channels open.
However, a siloed cloud-based business model has its drawbacks. A lack of integration among different departments and data environments continues to prevent businesses from reaching their potential. Decisions are delayed as employees scramble to find the data they need for a more independent style of working. In addition, many employees continue to struggle to adapt to the remote working environment. Cut off from their colleagues, employees can feel unsupported and overwhelmed – with little scope for HR to step in to help. A survey by Monster Poll reveals that 69% of employees are reporting symptoms of burnout from working remotely. Without a solution in sight, productivity, morale, and collaboration will continue to suffer.
As the world’s employees are only beginning to fathom, digital businesses also lead to heightened customer demands. Clients are becoming accustomed to the convenient, instantaneous nature of digital services. Being competitive now is all about providing an engaging one-on-one customer experience – personalized, smart and fast – despite the lack of in-person interaction. To stand out in this landscape, you need to be ambitious with your customer experience – and that means having unparalleled customer insight.
Master the back office to win the front office
As a priority, businesses need to innovate around integration – ensuring employees have access to data from across the business as well as from one another. Cloud-based collaboration tools, like Zoom and Microsoft Teams, are becoming increasingly embedded in day-to-day operations. Yet more needs to be done to ensure that employees feel connected with other parts of the business. For instance, when a payroll professional can quickly find employee data, or a people manager can access HR systems from their collaboration platform of choice, the business will enjoy real gains in efficiency and productivity.
Integrating data environments and applications is only the beginning. To become truly agile, a business needs to invest in process orchestration. Enterprise resource planning (ERP) and enterprise management solutions are already improving efficiencies across businesses worldwide, in areas spanning supply chain and sales to people management. They provide end-to-end solutions that offer a complete overview of operations. When every employee has access to this integrated system, they can experience actual freedom from organizational complexity, make decisions with confidence and, most importantly, focus better on their work.
While there is no one-size-fits-all solution, organizations should aim to have in place a fully integrated and intelligent infrastructure that delivers data whenever the customer or employee needs it. An integrated data layer can provide the foundation for truly smart, AI-powered automated systems that effectively respond to customer requirements and enhance the way people work.
People, not technology, fuel innovation
Clearly, businesses that consistently update their operating model, and remain connected, agile, and responsive will be the ones to thrive in the digital-first and digital-only era. AI solutions will continue to play a powerful role in the future business world. However, they need a strong foundation of connected data and operations to maximize their potential.
Technology alone doesn’t transform a business – people empowered by data and technology do. The purpose of technology is to make processes and barriers invisible and enable the business to focus on what’s most important.