Where will your digital journey lead in 2021?

18 December 2020

A new year, and new hope, offers the chance for organisations to digitally evolve and look to the future, says Nathan Baranowski, Head Strategist at Digital Wonderlab

There will never be another year like 2020. To say that the past 12 months have been transformative would be a serious understatement; COVID-19 has led many to embrace the digital first world and empower their teams with the right technology.

Changes that, in the past, could have taken months if not years to implement were made within weeks. Out of necessity, organisations had to rise to the most unexpected of challenges - and as such, now likely find themselves in a very different digital position to the one they were in at the turn of this new decade.

Many will have felt forced to digitally adapt during this time, making operational changes in order to survive but not necessarily to thrive. As such, much of the digital change that happened during the tumultuous year that was 2020 has been reactive, focused on keeping communications channels open and businesses running in the face of huge adversity.

Yet as we move towards a “new normal”, many businesses will need to continue with the progress that’s been made this year – taking forward the best of the virtual and physical worlds – and not become complacent.

2021 has the potential to be another year of huge change, this time, in a very positive and proactive way. While 2020 showed us what technology can do, 2021 may well prove to be when its power to enable people to do more is truly unleashed.

Team on ipad

Taking a people-centric approach

As many firms consider what their future could look like in a post-pandemic world, 2021 should provide a prime opportunity for businesses to focus their transformation efforts on the people who matter: their customers and staff.

The point has now come, for many, to go beyond survival mode and travel towards digital maturity: harnessing the right technology, in the right way, to meet strategic goals and help organisations achieve their purpose.

What this looks like will differ from company to company, of course – much of the tech discussion is likely to revolve around efficiency and effectiveness, ways of working, structures and skill sets, and the tools that are needed to adapt and grow.

Heading into 2021, there are crucial questions to ask, with people at the forefront of the digital conversation. What are you trying to do with your organisation? What are your objectives for the year ahead? Is now the time to create a new, future-proofed operational model, or to build a framework that provides better pathways for interaction? What is your purpose, and how can the right technology help you and your people bring it to life?

The power of purpose

Digital transformations fail without a clear purpose. It really is that simple. Even the most comprehensive IT systems only stand a chance of succeeding if they are implemented with a clear benefit in mind from the outset.

We’ve come so far, so fast, in 2020, that it’s been hard to stand still and take time to think about what comes next. Yet purpose must be front and centre in all digital strategies. It is crucial to think about the objective and the outcome that you want to achieve and why, primarily, before considering what technology might drive you towards that.

2020, for example, saw many companies turn towards chatbots. This was unsurprising: unprecedented demand for online services, combined with record unemployment, meant that necessity drove this trend to a large extent. Organisations that used chatbots to reach audiences and make a tangible difference and deliver vital information on a mass scale, such as the World Health Organisation’s Health Alert that launched in the midst of the pandemic, demonstrate that this ever-evolving tech can be very powerful. Yet a chatbot can only make an impact, and stand any chance of adding value, if specific objectives and measures for ‘success’ are set from the very beginning.

Unlocking “the art of the possible”

With clarity of purpose comes the chance to explore the “the art of the possible” - considering for your business: What are our dreams and ambitions? Where are you now, and where do we want to go? ? Only once you can clearly visualise where you want to be, and what fundamental change you wish to enact in your business, is it possible to stitch the necessary elements together to form your digital roadmap and consider the right tech solutions: that are genuinely fit for purpose.

Too many times in digital transformation projects, organisations go down the “sledgehammer to crack a nut” route, implementing vast systems when only a fraction is required. Alternatively, a best-of-breed approach is taken where multiple technologies are combined to form one core system, which ends up being far too complicated.

Unfortunately, what can all too easily be the result of this is ‘technology debt’ - a swathe of tech to oversee that you can’t really afford, that doesn’t do what it needs to do and that isn’t easily interchangeable, but which you need to keep, to try and claw back a return on investment. Good technology should always benefit your business; you should never be in debt to it.

The move towards digital maturity

Many of those coming into business today are digitally native, already well-versed in working and communicating in a certain way. For senior business leaders, that’s important to recognise. Yet others will be grounded in more traditional ways of working and may find making the move to digital maturity much harder. There’s still a great deal to be said for wisdom and tradition, and long-established business practices that we can learn from: the Cadburys, Co-ops and John Lewis’ of this world had core fundamentals that we can, and should, take forward into the digital era as we consider responsible business practice.

Successful businesses are about people at heart. This should always be the foundation on which to build digitally. While emerging tech such as robotics and AI are, unquestionably, going to be a big part of the future, we need to view them through the lens of “human plus”, adding value to a people-centric culture. To move forward digitally, we must think and work in the right way, both for now and for the future. And build the skills needed to enable teams to work harmoniously with technology.

While many companies may have fallen into using Teams and Zoom initially out of necessity, we’ve now applied rules and learned how to use this tech to be beneficial - much like so many of us did after social media first exploded. This unsettling year has presented the opportunity to challenge and change the status quo: the chance for business silos to be dissolved and replaced with multi-disciplinary teams, there to serve each other and the customer; and the chance for empires to be taken away and communities added in.

Change is our constant

Big technology shifts have come at us thick and fast this year, and that will continue – after all, life doesn’t stand still and there's nothing as constant as change.

As organisations, we have the ability and power to make decisions that influence and shape the world in which we live. 2020 was, at heart, a year of global crisis but also incredible unity, as inclusivity was catapulted to the forefront with the explosion of the Black Lives Matter movement. Over the course of this historic year, we witnessed the true emergence of a host of ethical and responsible technology solutions, including the wider adoption of AI, machine learning, vision and audible technologies and automation across many sectors.

The challenge that awaits, and the opportunity on the horizon, is to take on board what we, as humans, are doing well currently – and then to consider how a ‘human plus’ approach, with the support of the right technology, can help us do even better.

What will your future look like?

Now is the time to grow and evolve. Business leaders need to become technologically-savvy themselves, not expecting others to support them anymore. Organisations need to have a board that understands the importance of digital and the role it will play in the future. Businesses need to make sure they have good, fair representation. And company heads must be honest about who, and what, adds value.

Technology has changed us all so much over the last 20 years, and COVID-19’s impact has led many people to think twice about what they’re doing, and why. While there’s still plenty of senior cynicism when it comes to digital transformation - a 2019 report found that almost half of C-suite executives considered digital transformation to be a ‘waste of time’ after entering the process without a clear strategy - that was then, and this is now.

The world we inhabit today is very different to the one we lived in just 12 months ago. And whatever a ‘new normal’ looks like, it won’t be the same as it was before.

Technology can make a huge different to your business. But we need to rethink the phrase ‘digital transformation’ and now talk more in terms of ‘digital maturity’.

When you’re mature, you’re not thinking in terms of getting from A to B; you’re looking at life in a much more considered way, considering the people, processes and technology that’s needed to achieve and surpass your long-term goals. Businesses should continually develop their tech understanding, and evolve to become digitally mature - doing so will place organisations firmly on the path to thriving in 2021 and beyond.

We are naturally reflective at the start of a new year and it’s particularly the case as 2020 draws to close. All of us will be keen to leave behind the chaos and uncertainty of the past year while taking forward many learnings and valuable experiences, ensuring that we use these to build a brighter and stronger future.

Is it time for you to take the next step on your digital journey? We can help you see new digital possibilities and make it happen through beautifully crafted technology.