With the economic rollercoaster ride of 2020 drawing to its uncertain conclusion, CIOs and business leaders are formulating and finalising strategies for what is hoped to be a new year of growth and recovery, writes Tim Wood, CIO, Vox.

There can be no doubt that technology and IT infrastructure will underpin and shape the majority of 2021 strategies – with the global pandemic having radically accelerated many digital transformation journeys (while propelling other businesses into newly formed digitisation initiatives).

Arguably, the key to successfully leveraging technology to drive growth and recoveries in 2021 will be determined by the clarity of thinking around IT strategies – as well as leadership’s commitment to simplifying complexity while simultaneously harnessing emerging technology tools and platforms.

All too often, decision-makers sway between investing in a plethora of tools that bring risk and complexity into the business environment, or doing too little and falling behind the rapidly evolving enterprise technology ecosystem.

To avoid either scenario, we have highlighted the four critical areas of focus for CIOs that can both deliver business value while enabling growth through savvy cost management…

1 – Clarify the WFH model 

Although South Africa’s extended national lockdown forced many businesses to shift to remote working in a very ad hoc way, many have now settled into this mode of working as a way to manage costs in the wake of the crisis. At this stage, it is very important for leaders and CIOs to provide clarity around whether remote working will be a permanent feature for the business – or whether it will pursue a full return to the office.

Without this clarity, the technology support behind employees will be a patchwork affair as opposed to a formal and well-structured system with the requisite features. It also goes without saying that if remote working is being made permanent, then there must be a robust and detailed strategy to ensure that employees are able to perform both productively and professionally.

For one, this means making sure that connectivity is guaranteed for every staff member, along with the required endpoint security. Looking ahead, providing some form of remote working and flexibility is becoming a core feature of talent retention and HR strategies – so businesses that remain unclear and/or unprepared for this will be quickly outperformed by their more nimble and responsive rivals.

2 – Get proactive about data protection

With South Africa set to implement its landmark Protection of Personal Information Act (POPIA), CIOs are under pressure to ensure that their data management systems and processes are ready – which will naturally bring them in closer alignment with global best practices and a stricter international data privacy environment.

Now is the time for CIOs and their teams to conduct detailed reviews of their systems across all disciplines, which should also include the rules of engagement with employees, contractors, client and third party suppliers. Consumer data privacy is likely going to be a highly topical issue in 2021, and businesses have to consider data leaks and data protection as one of the foremost business risks (and priorities) going forward.

As we have seen, cybercriminals and hackers are becoming more sophisticated in their attacks, and the use of techniques such as social engineering and whaling are becoming scarily commonplace. No business is immune, from large multinationals to start-ups to SMEs, and this makes investment into cybersecurity – as well as cyber insurance – increasingly important.

A major part of this investment should include ongoing employee awareness initiatives and training, as well as cyber-attack simulations, vulnerability assessments and audits to make sure that the risks are very clearly understood across the organisation.

3 – Consider automation of key CX touchpoints 

As most business analysts agree, customer experience and the seamless resolution of queries is already a major differentiator of brand loyalty and business sustainability. Yet this requires investment into the right technology, guided by a very clear and intentional change management process to ensure that the technology serves its purpose (and doesn’t simply bring complexity and confusion).

With this in mind, we believe that the automation and use of AI to drive certain interactions will be key – for instance, by providing chatbots and self-service mechanisms which allow customers and consumers to resolve things independently and at their own pace and convenience.

In addition, enabling consumers to transact via intuitive and secure e-commerce channels will also be a key differentiator, and these channels should leverage AI and self-service to make sure that browsing, ordering, payments, deliveries, etc, are all supported by real-time, responsive functions.

It must be noted, however, that automation and indeed any new tech investment should have a clear and well documented business case behind it (ringfencing both scope and costs) – as well as a supportive infrastructure that is inherently agile and responsive to a changing consumer environment.

Where technology implementations are proving too costly or far removed from the core business offering, CIOs should not hesitate to pivot and change tack to prevent wasted resources. Importantly, every technology initiative should be underpinned by agile development methodologies with the aim of reducing manual interventions and processes where possible.

4 – Keep a hawk-eye on business value 

In an age whereby technology innovation is developing at a lightning-fast pace, CIOs have to balance the temptation of adopting every new trend with a moderate and thoughtful approach to change management and business growth. This can be achieved by working more closely with business and finance functions to identify where, for example, it makes sense to reduce Capex spend by moving to Cloud environments, and where technology can clearly deliver on business value through increasing sales and revenue.

Moreover, 2021 will likely be a year in which CIOs have to use technology as a savvy cost management tool – shifting to outsourced services where it makes sense, for example, and using software to gain real-time views of expenses, productivity, sales performance, and much more.

While 2021 is sure to be a year of recovery and renewed innovation, success will be defined by seamless and engaging customer experiences as well as corporate professionalism – both of which can be fundamentally supported by proactive technology strategies.

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