Keeping the digital transformation trend on track post-pandemic

  • The COVID-19 pandemic gave businesses no choice but to go digital to reach staff and customers, catapulting digital transformation agendas years into the future.

  • Geopolitical and economic uncertainty are giving pause to tech investment as leaders wait to see where things land.

  • Even with an unclear view of what the future holds, tech investment and innovation will build resilience against what might come.

There's a temptation in Australia – as the country emerges from the uncertainty of a pandemic and finds itself in the uncertainty of geopolitical conflict, an energy crisis, rising interest rates and inflation – to turn around and hightail it back under the covers. This is especially true when it comes to matters of information technology (and its funding).

Usually, when trouble looms, organisations tend to put the brakes on, easing off on spending until it's clearer what's to come. During COVID-19 that wasn't an option. Going digital almost overnight, corporate and public sector organisations alike were forced to make bold decisions in order to reach their customers. As a result, companies have embraced cloud, shored up their cybersecurity, enabled remote working and taken up new communications platforms in order to retain productivity and a sense of altered normalcy.

Australian companies are years ahead of where they would have been – a position that the country is poised to take advantage of to do great things. And one that it risks losing.

The great snapback

Already, it's becoming clear that many organisations are pulling back from the big calls.

During the pandemic, there was no option to stop innovating, to being creative, to just making things work. Customers were in the same boat. They forgave businesses their supply chain woes, extended delivery times and ad hoc working hours with empathy. Yet the latest Global Consumer Insights Pulse survey shows that customers are losing patience as the businesses they have stayed loyal to fail to return to providing cutting-edge customer service.

Executives risk snapping back to pre-pandemic “business as usual”. Despite the great technological progress made, fear of looming challenges is holding boardrooms to ransom. Investments that were made in innovation and technology enablement are being paused or cut back in case of the unexpected. It is understandable, given human nature, but It is somewhat ironic, given that the pandemic – arguably the world's largest recent shock – showed us that to be resilient, to be absorbent of turbulence, it is more investment that is needed, not less.

Keep digital front and centre

Leaders need to resist wanting things to be exactly ‘the way they were'. Printing reams of paper, stuffy meeting rooms, office hours and non-hybrid long commutes need not be the future as well as the past. To progress, the positive learnings from the pandemic should be embraced and further embedded – such as flexibility, creativity, and innovation.

This is of increased importance given the latest ABS Census findings that show millennials – who were raised in a digital-first landscape, or at the very least, spent formative years with the reality of the internet, email and computers – are beginning to outnumber baby boomers in Australia. When a great resignation is making talent harder to find, now is not the time to be alienating the largest sector of the population, but indeed, to be unleashing its unique perspective by embracing digital.

To keep a pipeline of investment going for FY23, boardrooms should make sure IT doesn't go back in the box. The CIO, who has traditionally cycled from CEO adjacent to sitting under the CFO, COO or competing with the CMO and CDO (both data and digital) needs to stay front and centre. They guided people through unprecedented technological change and are best placed to capitalise on it.

Thoughts for the boardroom table

The technological progress that has been made thus far is just the beginning – it has enabled readiness and preparation for emerging technology, Artificial Intelligence (AI), cloud, automation, data and analytics and customer experience – but there is more to come.

So how can executives and board members keep the momentum going? How do we ensure that ‘human meets digital' in a sustainable way? Initially, by keeping some key learnings in mind when deciding on IT spend and where, or when, to innovate.

  • Spending on IT is not simply for the sake of spending on IT. Technology spend speaks directly to how an organisation delivers its products and services. Digitisation should be about better delivering the outcomes for the organisation or department and its customers.

  • Strategise for the medium-term, act in the short-term. Because of the uncertainty around tomorrow it's necessary to be practical as well as visionary. Strategies need to encompass both states, and therefore, when it comes to technology, funding cycles and tech planning need to be more agile and iterative than ever before. 

  • Don't forget the backend. During COVID-19, organisations did a lot of front end work to keep things going. Now is the time to think about back end processes and transformation to better enable the effective operations that will allow organisational agility and the ability to withstand future shocks.

  • Find your foundations in the data. Data and analytics are going to become increasingly important, both in terms of productivity, knowledge of customers and speed to market around products and services. Don't focus on one area, instead look for the right combination of elements needed for success.

Stretching for success

No matter what the future holds, there is no scenario where we snap back from digital. According to a report by IDC, 80 percent of the world will be online by 2024 and by 2027, 41 percent of an enterprise's revenue will come from digital products and services. Consumers moved online during the pandemic and are spending their cash there. Governments are already digitising their economies.

Now is the time to invest in technology – even with an unclear view of what the future holds. While counterintuitive, when it is known that there will be rough patches ahead, it is precisely the time to keep moving forward on investment and innovation. Being prepared will smooth out the edges of what's to come.

This article was originally published in IT Brief, 9 August, 2022.1