During 2020, digital transformation initiatives helped businesses to stay afloat when the world was plunged into challenging and uncharted territory. 2021 is a time for businesses to build on what they put in place in order to thrive rather than simply survive. We touched on technology in our Essential Leadership Requirements for 2021, but felt it was worth highlighting some of the key artificial intelligence (AI) and workplace technologies that leaders are prioritising this year and exploring how they will impact our working lives. Here is what you need to know about AI and tech’s potential in the working world in 2021:
We have spent the past several years discussing ‘the future of work’ and the ways that technology will eventually shake up the workplace. But the fact of the matter is, developments such as COVID and constant global innovation have accelerated the timeline, and the future has now arrived. Going forward, the future we have been predicting and planning for will start to be accepted as the norm. The time has come to sink or swim, adapt or accept defeat.
At this point, the benefits of AI, Cloud, and other disruptive technologies have been discussed at length. It should no longer seem unfathomable that AI will touch every aspect of our lives in due course. We interact with it on a daily basis without even realising or thinking twice about it. The tech already lives in our phones, our smart speakers, our email, our social media feeds, our streaming platforms, and our online shopping baskets. It may already be embedded in features of the software you use at work or will likely be introduced soon.
We can expect to see an even greater acceleration in the advancement and intelligence performed by technology during 2021.
What this means is that work will become ‘smarter’ as businesses adopt new technology to help enhance their practices, speed up their processes, gain in-depth insights into the needs of their customers, discover patterns, reveal anomalies, and make predictions and decisions. Given the advancement of AI and machine learning in the past year, and the developments still to come in the year ahead, AI is increasingly becoming a key driver of organisational performance. The organisations who are leading the pack in adoption are already reaping massive benefits in productivity, efficiency, cost and resource saving, and competitive advantage.
We have become a bit spoilt for choice when it comes to available tools and vendors. The benefit of this is that regardless of an organisation’s challenges or goals, there is likely to be a solution readily available to help. With automation able to handle the routinised and data-driven functions of the business, human staff are freed up from the mundane aspects of their role and able to focus on more meaningful work. They will also have more time to focus on the creative or strategic functions that technology cannot yet perform, this being a huge benefit for businesses which need to drive more innovation.
However, even though AI will reshape rather than replace most professional roles, there will almost certainly be discomfort or pushback from staff as their jobs change. Some may cling to the status quo and reject AI’s assistance, or feel threatened. The key here is for business leaders to offer their staff adequate support and preparation throughout the transformation process. This will likely involve offering retraining or upskilling opportunities to help staff develop future-ready skills and adjust to the evolving needs of the business. It is also crucial for leaders to serve as champions of change within their organisation. By increasing their own understanding of new technologies, business leaders can better address staff concerns, which helps to inspire confidence in the future of the organisation and its leadership.
2020 was a massive turning point when it came to our level of comfort with using digital interactions in our daily lives. Customers’ priorities and expectations have shifted after a year of living through a pandemic. Businesses closed their physical doors due to restrictions, so their customers flocked to their websites. As a result, there is a greater focus on providing effective, differentiated digital experiences than ever before.
We do not know how long the current restrictions will last, but as we look ahead to when life returns to some semblance of normalcy, it is likely that customers will no longer be satisfied with distinctly physical or digital experiences. Instead, business leaders need to prepare to offer their customers a blend of the best of both. AI can be used to offer customers a personalised experience that transitions seamlessly between the digital and physical environments, when allowed. Expect forward-thinking leaders to begin planning for this over the next several months.
Customer needs, behaviours, and expectations shift quickly and often. It is crucial for business leaders to stay on top of these trends in order to provide the experiences their customers expect and the products and services that will best meet their changing needs. It can be hard to keep track of these shifts, but AI tools make it easier track changes as they happen and gain deeper insight into their customer base. This will prove critical to business leaders as they try to move their organisation forward post-pandemic, and it is a benefit which leaders should factor in when considering adopting AI.
Every industry has its leaders and its laggards, but most businesses today fall somewhere in the middle. These organisations and their leadership most likely understand that the world of work is evolving and that they need to adapt in order to survive. But as we start 2021, most of these organisations are still struggling with where to begin.
While having many vendors and tools in the market means that businesses have plenty of options, the drawback is that it can be difficult to know who to turn to. Conversely, with so many shiny tools available, it can be tempting to adopt whatever sounds the best or makes the most promises as opposed to the most effective tool for solving the problems at hand.
That is why it is so crucial for leaders to have a strategy in place. This should be the starting point for all digital transformation processes. Businesses undoubtedly have many challenges to overcome this year, but the specifics of those problems and the outcomes you are looking to achieve need to be identified first and foremost.
We have spoken in previous years of there needing to be a greater emphasis on having tech savvy executives in the C-suite to drive the change process, and we expect to see this accelerate in 2021. The shift of technology being the responsibility of the CIO or CTO will also continue to decline as more ownership needs to be held across many levels. Given that the impacts of new technology will touch every aspect of the organisation, it is crucial that the entire board understands the impacts, benefits, risks, and so on. Whether it is the CEO or CTO who leads the change, there needs to be a team of empowered and well-informed executive leaders driving the development of the strategy. It will be the responsibility of this team to define, expand, and shape the vision through effective collaborations with the workforce that creates alignment and buy-in throughout the organisation. Having the right skills, displaying the right behaviours and understanding how and what each person and process contributes is critical.
Last year opened our eyes to just how much more beneficial and impactful technology can be in the workplace to remain competitive, increase employee experience and customer satisfaction. This year, leaders need to further expand their thinking to focus on how AI and technology can be used to help them get ahead rather than just stay afloat. Upskilling or retraining can help leaders deepen their understanding of AI while also developing the right skills to help inform the strategy and implement it.
It will also be vitally important for leaders to understand how AI and disruptive technology are impacting businesses across their industry and other sector, as well as learning how this technology is being regulated, and what the major trends are globally*.
Attending AI courses or programmes such as the Rialto AI Leaders Programme is a great way for executives to improve their relationship with AI, deepen their understanding of it, keep up with trends, and gain actionable insights that can then be applied to their business. They can then take the insights, skills, and knowledge gained back to their boardroom to create a strategy that leverages AI to its full potential.
As many executives begin to come to grips with AI, we expect 2021 to see greater investment, shifts in priorities, a bigger focus on digital skills, and smarter and more tech-driven strategies. Just as the idea of returning to a five-day in-office work week may seem old-fashioned to many of us now, we expect that by the end of this year, we will feel the same about not using artificial intelligence in our day-to-day practice. The fact of the matter is that the time has now come to sink or swim, and those who swim safely to shore after the major waves of the pandemic have died down will most definitely be those who leveraged AI to chart their path forward.
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