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Post COVID-19, digitisation will no longer be optional but an indispensable operational requirement

Article written by Khaya Mbanga (Group Digital Transformation & Technology Director – Servest)

The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has to a large extent served as a catalyst to accelerate the adoption of smart technologies in several industries and in social life. Driven by self-preservation, many organisations scurried to adopt smart applications to mitigate the devastating impact of COVID-19 on their businesses.

For organisations that already had these strategies in place the transition may have been fairly seamless, but those without any digital strategies may have found, for instance, transitioning from a physical workspace to a remote and digitised workspace somewhat rocky.

According to a study by McKinsey on Africa: Digitisation, productivity and job creation, could result in a net gain of up to 1.2 million jobs in South Africa by 2030, and companies need to move fast to capitalise on these opportunities. While the COVID-19 pandemic may have disrupted these projections, without a doubt it has also opened some opportunities in the digitisation space.

According to the research, “The accelerated adoption of technology could benefit several of South Africa’s core industries if businesses act with sufficient speed and determination. In mining, it has the potential to increase margins by 15 percent. In retail, it could raise margins by two percentage points, reduce costs, and enhance the customer experience. In banking, digitisation can cut cost-to-income ratios by 10 percentage points, on average, by 2030.”

Although at the time of the release of the report last September, COVID-19 had not hit the world, the sentiments around the impact that digitisation can make in the day-to-day experience of products and services undoubtedly remain.

There is definitely more motivation now than ever for companies to accelerate their digital transformation plans. While there has always been an awareness of the need to embrace technology by identifying the right technology solutions to solve unique business challenges, implementation has never been faster than we have seen this year.

Internet penetration is already relatively high in South Africa, according to a report by Datareportal. Internet penetration stood at 62% in January 2020, which translates to 36.54 million internet users that swelled by 1.1 million (+3.1%) between 2019 and 2020. This increasing uptake bodes well for deepening digitisation.

This presents even better opportunities for the acceleration of digital technologies. Over the past few months we have seen a number of technologies emerge, among others the rollout of 5G to enable faster data communication via mobile technology for businesses and homes. We have seen the proliferation of Robotic Process Automation (RPA) – the automation of tedious manual processes to enable people to assume more interesting and challenging tasks. This is especially important during this time of minimised numbers in the workplace, as RPA can run scheduled tasks without the need for a staff presence; RPA tasks can be triggered, executed and monitored remotely. We have also seen the boom of e-commerce. Although online shopping has been around for some time, this time it gained traction at an exponential rate as people were confined to their homes and relied on online platforms to shop and transact during the lockdown period. This trend is anticipated to continue even beyond the COVID-19 period.

Taking a strategic approach to developing digitisation strategies and opportunities in this space

As we look back at the past five months, it is important that organisations begin to review and develop clear digital transformation strategies. These should encompass innovation that identifies new technologies that respond to the business’ most pertinent challenges.

A starting point would be to look at small, light-weight initiatives to prove concepts that can deliver the best impact and return on investment from a value perspective. Without a doubt there will be failings along the way, but from those there will also be opportunities for learning – and fail and learn quickly or win slowly.

Once a successful proof of value is achieved, it is important to pilot the solution to ensure that the change and new way of work is well-received and assimilated sustainably within the organisation.

There are a number of opportunities in this space, including specific areas such as contactless solutions, for example developing contactless payment solutions and contactless physical access management solutions. The expansion of digital channels for customer servicing is also another area of potential growth. This includes use of voice agents, chatbots and similar technologies to service customer queries and requests. Anything-As-A-Service (AaaS) is a way of utilizing technology through cloud-based capabilities for relatively quick implementation. Whether this is creating a new application as a service, food or package delivery as a service, car license renewal as a service – anything.

Though these changes mark a major shift that will define how we work and play, society also needs to be mindful of the inherent hazard posed by working remotely.

Disasters as a catalyst of change

Those organisations that choose not to change may find the other side of post-COVID-19 difficult to acclimatise in without digital strategies, as more people and organisations adapt to new forms and ways of doing business. To illustrate how much change we have undergone in the past five months and how disasters can become a catalyst for change, I wish to illustrate this with an example that many people can relate to. There is a gentleman selling firewood in my neighbourhood who prior to COVID-19 only accepted cash as a preferred mode of payment. Since the implementation of the lockdown, which coincided with the onset of the winter season, he became agile and included instant, electronic money transfers as a form of payment, as more people became uncomfortable with carrying cash for fear of contamination. This form of payment is called eWallet, which many banks offer these days.

He conceded that once he got used to the convenience and safety of this form of payment, it became difficult to fathom a world without this service.

Using this analogy, the same will apply to organisations that had to adopt digital processes during the lockdown to maintain business continuity. The temporary measures that many organisations had to put in place will likely remain, as companies begin to reap the benefits of this new norm.

These new solutions include cloud computing, artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, digital collaboration, and virtual workspaces.

Security for businesses for remote workspaces

Ensuring the security of our environment and the consistency of systems availability remains one of the biggest challenges facing many organisations. It is easier to manage the conduct of our colleagues within the office environment via the IT infrastructure that we already have in place, such as firewalls and IT infrastructure and policies, compared with when 90% of your workforce is working remotely this function becomes a mammoth task.

In such instances, human resources have a major role in creatinguser manuals to guide the organisation’s best practices for remote working. Where possible, organisations are encouraged to set up helpdesks to provide remote support. In the post COVID-19 era, where reliance on digital technology will be the order of the day, it is critical that IT infrastructure should also be on par to support operational requirements. It is therefore imperative to increase bandwidth for improved connectivity, beef up security with the latest anti-malware software and firewalls, consider secure Cloud storage for content keeping and increase network resource availability for stability and performance.

Experience has shown that the extent to which organisations can successfully weather the COVID-19 storm can be determined by how successful they are in integrating technology and digital applications in their operations. This would put them in pole position to recover more quickly and pivot from playing defence to chasing growth.

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