After a year of shocks, businesses are looking to the future, with unpredictability now baked into the thought processes at both board and staff level, taking a simple guess on how business will operate in the future seems a foolhardy behaviour.
The last year need not be seen as either a waste or a missed opportunity, though.
Darren Clarke, head of customer success at OpenSky Data Systems said that one key lesson is that IT and data systems, thought of more broadly as ‘digitisation’, can help businesses survive and thrive even as the ground shifts beneath them.
Clarke himself comes from a financial services background and so has already seen radical transformation.
“I saw at first hand a lot of business models go from paper-based to very tech-focused processes: laptop-based and software-based. Seeing that sparked an interest in me in the power of technology to drive change,” he said.
Clarke said that the level of digitisation in an organisation – that is to say, how prepared it is to deal with customers through modern and efficient digital processes – is highly variable. Some do a lot, some less. Almost all, though, have at least dipped a toe in the water.
“My experience is that most organisations already have some level of digitisation, but there are often gaps in integration, particularly between legacy systems,” he said.
Of course, the Covid-19 pandemic and government order that, wherever possible, people should not come into the workplace tested the readiness of these systems and processes to the limit.
“It’s very hard to put a number on how many people were blindsided by the pandemic,” he said.
Interestingly, the public sector was among the stars in keeping things going. Perhaps it is a case of American ideology leaking into Irish discourse or perhaps simple prejudice, but this reality runs counter to many people’s expectations. The truth is, whatever its limitations, the Irish state already delivered a lot of services digitally.
“Very few large public sector organisations would have been entirely non-digital,” said Clarke.
Nonetheless, the shockwaves of the pandemic were real – and they were felt across the Irish workplace, across industries and sectors and, indeed, across the globe.
“Nobody expected Covid to have such a profound impact on so many people right across the world, so, in that sense, we were all blindsided: none of us realised we could be confined to home for almost a year,” he said.
Similarly, nobody wants to understate the negative impact of the pandemic, either in terms of the virus itself or the, as yet unknown, outworking of the lockdowns. Yet despite this, there is another reality. Unwanted, yes; unexpected, certainly, the pandemic has certainly driven lasting change.
“It created a catalyst,” Clarke said. “Employers were forced, overnight, to get everybody working from home. There was no preparation and no warning given.”
Indeed, none was possible: while epidemiologists and others have long warned of a potential pandemic, no one was, or ever could be, capable of saying what it would be and when it would hit.
Low code for easy automation
Luckily for the world, information and communications technologies were there to fill the gap, unevenly perhaps, but nonetheless they worked.
The specific technologies used ranged from the simple to the novel: broadband, of course, with various videoconferencing and communication platforms coming to the fore.
Fundamentally, Clarke said, digitisation and automation is about making it easier for citizens to interact with services, for businesses to reach their customers, and provide a better customer experience, and for employees to continue to work.
“All of these benefits build up operational resilience, which is a real advantage in the context of the current lockdown environment,” he said.
But whatever use we might put videoconferencing to in the future – and all indications suggest an at least partially remote workforce will become the norm – even greater change will come through the introduction of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) tools, such as robotic process automation (RPA).
RPA was already in used in, for example, accounts, with invoices being automatically read for processing. It also has a noted role in web analytics and helpdesk, digital signature and any other task that hitherto took a lot of human interaction.
Clarke said that the pandemic has brought out the best in some organisations, particularly those which have taken the opportunity to look at their processes.
“In what way has the pandemic changed how organisations operate, in both the public and private sectors? Well, the key theme when we look back will be that the pandemic has acted as an accelerator: a catalyst. It has driven organisations on their digital journey more quickly than would otherwise have been the case.”
But AI and automation can do a lot more than just speed up office tasks. In fact, the limits of what can be done are not yet known – and in any case are ever-shifting.
“Microsoft Dynamics and Power Automate, the RPA tool, can be implemented in many settings to close down gaps and achieve better end-to-end process integration,” he said.
“Dynamics provides you with the base functionality for those processes so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time.”
Because it is ‘low code’, custom software solutions can be rapidly developed and deployed. As a result, the feared eternal IT project may be a thing of the past.
However, despite the low code nature of tools such as Dynamics, a level of expertise is needed to deploy solutions like it effectively and securely. It also invariably needs to be integrated with legacy systems that remain robust and stores of value.
“There are a lot of legacy systems out there. You can, if you want, start again with a big project, yes; but you can also work piece-by-piece, introducing new functionality. Integration is what I would stress. Using Microsoft Dynamics means that 90 per cent plus of the underlying code is out of the box, with customisation at the margins to fit the specific organisational context and needs,” said Clarke.
Apart from being less risky than a complete IT overhaul, Clarke said this approach to introducing automation helps make businesses fit to fight future shocks.
“The pandemic has shown that to future-proof organisations and to build resilience, the use of digital technologies to automate is critical,” he said.