It’s 2021 and we need to realise technology is not the answer

Profile picture for user ddpreez By Derek du Preez January 29, 2021 Audio mode
Summary:
A lot changed in 2020, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that technology is not a silver bullet - we need to talk about people and process change.

Image of a lightbulb drawn on a piece of paper, next to an image of the world
(Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay )

I've made a commitment this year that when speaking to and interviewing buyers about their digital change projects, I'm going to keep my questions about the technology itself very limited. Obviously technology is an enabler, but it's not the answer to the world's problems in 2021 - and if you think it is, then I'd urge you to dig a little deeper. 

As we all know, a lot has shifted in society and the role of work over the past 12 months. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted structural challenges across our economies and has placed a spotlight on where vulnerabilities lie. I've spoken to dozens and dozens of companies since the onset of the novel Coronavirus - most of which have been able to step up to the challenge pretty well, all things considered. 

However, almost all of them are recognising that the way things have been done in the past are not the way things need to be done in the future. We can all spend our time future gazing, but the reality is that none of us really know what the impact of the pandemic will be in a decade's time. 

What will workspaces look like? Will distributed teams mean a change in global hiring practices? How do we continue to train and mentor people remotely? Have people's attitudes towards data sharing changed since COVID-19 hit? How can companies keep pace with the rapidly raised expectations of customers? What will political shifts in the world's global markets mean for trade and supply chains? Do we understand what the future generations need and want from work and business? How can companies quickly adapt their processes to keep employees engaged and consumers happy? As digital capitalism continues to direct money and power to a few select companies that can scale, how do we hold them accountable and ensure opportunities exist elsewhere? 

These are just a handful of questions that spring to mind when thinking about digital change projects in 2021 and beyond. And notice, there isn't a single mention of AI or machine learning in there. Yes, technology will undoubtedly play a role in all of the above, but it's not the starting point - nor should it be when thinking about the future of your organisation. 

So, what should you be thinking about? 

It's my guess, and we are already seeing evidence of this, that there will be a significant increase in technology spend over the coming months and years. Buyers are likely to take the opportunity whilst there is political will within organisations to adapt and make changes - but simply saying ‘we need AI, a new CRM, some chatbots and more data!', will not set you on a path to success.

My advice would be to take a step back and make a clear assessment of where you are as an organisation. For starters, think about your power structures internally. This doesn't just mean how command and control works through lines of management, but whether or not people and teams have the authority to try new things and be allowed to fail. Funding mechanisms need to reflect that too. Hostile growth metrics gear organisations towards acquisition within your current line of business. Leadership needs to empower teams and its people to think outside of the box and give them the tools and authority to try what they think might work, trusting in their expertise. 

Speaking of growth metrics, I'd argue that these aren't sustainable long term and often lead to obscene consequences, with little value. Companies should be thinking about what defines them as an organisation and what their long term ambitions are. I don't want to hear ‘we are going to be a $Xbillion company in 2025'. I want to hear ‘we will create inclusive products that support our users' needs, whilst adopting sustainable practices and ensuring the ongoing development of our people'. 

Talking of user need, this should be front and centre of everything a company does. If you don't have teams set up to think about this, and if it's not being invested in as a priority, it's something you should be considering ASAP. User need driven design should encompass everything from your core product, to your customer service, to the fonts you use on your website. If you as a company believe you're offering the best for your customers, you can't do that without the hard work of understanding their user needs. 

Much of the above will also feed into process. I'd argue that many organisations up until now have been slowly adapting to the changing expectations of employees and customers, creating a Frankenstein web of processes and workflows that give them just enough flexibility to adapt to the demands that digital has created. And that's understandable, rethinking your organisation from the ground up isn't easy. But, however daunting the task, now is the time to look to what a future operating model should look like and redesign your processes thoughtfully to embrace that (with the ability to change as and when is needed). 

For a company with a long and rich history this is particularly difficult. Getting rid of the ‘we have always done it this way' attitude, which supports existing careers and power, is not a comfortable process. But if you want to survive the next 25 years, it will be necessary. 

The pandemic has also shown more than ever that it's people that add value in a time of crisis, not technology. Invest in your people and teams, not in your products. Give people the authority to do what they think is best and empower them to make decisions that fit with the long-term goals of the organisation. Employees and customers aren't going to respond well in the future to being treated as disposable, with ever increasing options outside the four walls of your organisation. Knowledge sharing, training, mentoring, diversity and inclusion - these are all things that need to be incorporated internally and externally into what your company does. 

How do you define value? What are your measuring success against beyond increasing revenue and growth? How can you make this sustainable through people, process and technology? How can you embed a practice and culture of constant change across an organisation and make that exciting for your people and customers? 

These are all far more important considerations than discrete technologies that in isolation will add nothing but complexity to your business. 

My take

I realise that with this piece I'm not exactly offering a useful framework to guide your business through the next challenging few months and years. However, I hope that it offers some food for thought for you to build one for yourselves. It will vary by industry and company, but the core essence of what I'm talking about should remain the same. Don't approach your corporate/technology strategy through the lens of digital. If you're doing that, you've missed the point.