What Emerging Technologies Will Take Off in 2021?

The New Year won’t mark an end to the bombardment of phishing attacks, targeted attacks and ransomware the world has experienced in recent months – if anything, 2021 could look like the ‘wild west’ in the world of cybersecurity. With a remote workforce making organisations more vulnerable than before, organisations and CIOs in particular, can expect a challenging year ahead. SAP Africa’s Executive Advisor for Innovation Strategy, Mervyn George provides insights on emerging technologies in 2021 and what will drive the adoption of those technologies in Africa:

What is the outlook for the enterprise IT market on the African continent in 2021?

Three fundamental shifts have taken place in 2020 that will drive evolution in the enterprise IT market in 2021. The first is the financial strain faced by so many businesses on the continent, the second is the rise of the work-from-anywhere generation, and the third is the rise of ecommerce as a necessity.

What the continuous financial strain leads to is corporate strategy – regardless of size or industry sector – that aims to drive resilience and profitability. In the enterprise IT context, this translates to tech modernization investments that brings transparency to the financial wellbeing of a company and allows decision makers to easily identify much-needed actions to drive positive change. The scope for analytics, predictive modeling and intelligent working solutions is vast.

The work-from-anywhere expectation of employees implies a continued investment in productivity tools that allow teams to connect and collaborate online. Not only would the adoption of the software platforms continue to rise but a set of new job niches open up for people and companies to provide masterclasses in using particular workplace productivity tools or to assist in scouting and planning the right combination of productivity tools that are best-fit for a particular team. This includes a rise in security strategy offerings to ensure companies are working with minimal risk of exposure to external parties.

Lastly, eCommerce as a necessity is a result of companies needing to drive revenue through alternate channels during lockdowns. Many who were new to digital strategies would have seen the light, with digital offering lower costs of sale as compared to brick and mortar stores. Further investment in both eCommerce and CRM platforms to improve customer journeys and online shopping experiences will be witnessed, with investment in logistics and warehouse management system modernization to accommodate this increase in demand following soon after.

What key technologies should CIOs across the continent look out for in the year ahead?

Most tech enthusiasts will continue to keep a close eye on 5G and the opportunities it opens for connectivity, for people and for things. AI will continue to stretch into more mainstream corporate applications, the same way we unknowingly train thousands of machine learning models daily as an individual, corporate applications of machine learning will continue to rise with no obvious disruption to work tasks. We can expect to witness growth in job functions such as business architecture, automation engineering and process optimization.

One major shift in technologies will be greater adoption of low-code and no-code platforms to build enterprise applications, from SMEs to large enterprises. The agility, ability to prototype rapidly and the time to value offered by these platforms makes this an obvious choice for corporates looking to drive cost efficiency across their businesses. The skill of programming will continue to have a place but there will be a shift to software architecture, reverse engineering and user-centric design over coding in the coming year.

 What predictions do you have for the African enterprise IT market and what should CIOs be paying attention to?

As part of a longer-term strategy to drive down exchange rate fluctuation as a key factor in corporate spending, along with the growth in tech sector start-up and scale-up investment through venture capital funds and the impending rise of additional mega-cities on the continent, Africa will begin creating more African solutions that solve global problems. The tech start-ups that are trying to solve an issue about proximity or lack of expert resources or removing friction in a process will gain traction but will have continental origins.

As a CIO, creating alliances with early stage businesses, whether to outsource the build of enterprise applications, or to funnels into a corporate growth strategy focused on investments – will be essential for long-term survival. New ventures offer an opportunity to drive competitive advantage, or to gain market penetration, or to provide a new essential service to other stakeholders in your current industry sector. These outcomes will feed new business models, operating models and revenue streams, making a current business a lot more diverse and arguably more bulletproof for future economic shocks. At the least, the insights gained from working with new ventures will drive internal mindset shifts that should spark more innovation internally.

Given the shift to remote working brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, how do you see this shaping up in 2021 and how can CIOs and CISOs improve the security posture of their organisations in Africa?

The ability and willingness of employees to work remotely will not fall away for the foreseeable future. Naturally, some roles cannot be performed remotely, but remote working for at least a known proportion of a business can be properly defined and the correct infrastructure put in place to drive team performance.

Further investment in workplace productivity, the software and skills for communication and collaboration, will continue to rise in 2021. If not already in place, companies should be looking to introduce enterprise architecture, information architecture and security architecture capacities to their teams – whether in-house or outsourced. With the next normal of working, new challenges will arise – from mobile device enrolment where there was never a need, to procurement systems and policies to accommodate self-service buying by staff needing home office equipment, software licenses or replacement devices, to ensuring data encryption is in place through secure communication channels when dealing with sensitive data.

At the least, companies should be educating the workforce on safe working practices and to highlight the risks associated with using public WIFI networks, social hacking, unattended devices, phishing and improper classification of documentation for internal, external or confidential usage. Then, following a maturity curve or security implementation roadmap to introduce more hard controls to reduce the risk of improper access to corporate systems and data would be needed.

What do you see as challenges for enterprises across different industry verticals in Africa in 2021?

African businesses and its investors will look at hedging for supply chain integrity. The lockdowns of 2020 caused major disruption to businesses worldwide and a general shift to identify and secure local, domestic or continental suppliers is underway. Across industry sectors, this would have varying levels of readiness to completely replace prior international suppliers. Some may have fixed contracts in mind or preferred suppliers internationally, based on pricing or quality. Supply diversification may not also make sense for all sectors.

Consumer behaviours also shapes sector evolution. For example, grocery consumers would favour both quality and price and would arguably suffer from a lack of variety in order to retain value for money. Understandably, this new consumer behaviour may be born from their direct outcome of national lockdowns impacting their disposable income. The knock-on effect to the retailer, consumer goods manufacturer, co-ops and farmers is reduced demand for some produce and increased demand for others. Within the telecommunication sector, the work-from-home era puts the majority of the workforce on home WIFI networks, shifting the spend from voice calls to VOIP calls via chat platforms.

Hard hit sectors, such as transportation, would look at innovative ways to drive additional revenue. One example is a shift to more pay-as-you-use models for vehicles, or all-you-can-use models for trains, buses, trams, planes or bicycles. The knock-on effect for the stakeholders in these value chains is immense. A survivalist approach, with a relevant business offering and a business model favourable to the consumer, will see a company through the next wave of transformation.

What emerging technologies will take off in 2021 and what will drive the adoption of those technologies in Africa?

Less of a technology and more of an approach is the adoption of sustainability as a corporate strategy pillar. More businesses are realizing the need for purpose-led corporate culture and are feeling the pressure to align business decisions with their purpose with an aim to build more ethical and sustainable businesses.

Technologies to support this, such as SAP’s Climate21 initiative that features a Carbon Footprint Analysis solution to assess your company’s ongoing contribution to climate change, will help drive the transparency needed to make the right changes for sustainable outcomes. Other solutions in the circular economy, health and safety, and waste management domains, drive these climate action outcomes even more. For this to be successful, leaders need to ensure that sustainability outcomes are measurable and that the discussion on progress is being represented in the boardroom across the continent.

Beyond sustainability, and to support a focus on cost efficiency and the retention of almost only the critical skills within a business, is the rise in Intelligent Robotic Process Automation. For companies to work smarter, they need to shift to working on exceptions and not trawling through lists of tasks. This means employees shift their work to focus on higher value-add tasks and the rate of productivity within a business should increase. For this to succeed, all representatives at the board level need to understand the benefits of automation and the journey to get there, to help identify opportunities across their respective business areas and to effectively communicate the impact and positive outcomes for the human contingent within the business.

What technologies will be most sought after in the year ahead?

Once people realise that 2021 will continue in much the same light as 2020 has, there’ll be a renewed enthusiasm to work simpler and smarter. From a home worker perspective, hardware and software that adds simplicity to video and voice calls – from headsets, to presentation and video editing software, to smart desks and audio-visual and lighting equipment – will be on the hotlist. From a corporate perspective, audio-visual equipment to sustain team calls and remove the need for individual connections from within the office will be on the wish list, as well as team performance dashboards spanning different departments (such as SAP’s Digital Boardroom) to show a holistic view of the business with the ability to drilldown to detail or correlate data on demand. The transparency created by dashboards feeds a rise in relevance within decision making, which in turn feeds an automation strategy.

How should CIOs tackle the skills challenges the African technology sector is facing at the moment?

There is a comparative shortage of tech skills in Africa. To combat this, a long-term strategy should be adopted, whereby CIOs and other leaders are supporting growth opportunities for currently skilled and future tech specialists. Growth can take the form of formal funding for schooling and tertiary education but can also be demonstrated by creating opportunities to collaborate with the youth. For example, a corporate hackathon can include students or scholars, so they get familiar with the industry sector, business challenges represented in the hackathon, and the technologies used to help solve those challenges. Not only is there an opportunity for potential internship placements after the event, but there’s also the growth of awareness at a young age that can help recruit future techies. One organisation – AI in Africa – has been focused on giving high school aged girls exposure to AI concepts successfully through a similar model.

Work experience opportunities, in the form of tech academies, startup challenges, incubators or internships, designed to bring people in and get them collaborating with others of mixed expertise, will broaden their minds and appetite for learning and growth while growing their networks.

What CIOs can also do is share their stories with the world.

Follow Mervyn George on Twitter @mervynonline