Most of us have seen enough prophecies fail that we recognise predicting exact events is a fool’s errand. Nevertheless, we can use lessons from the past to accurately determine which trends are most likely to impact our future, even in the age of Covid-19.
While it may feel as though the pandemic is driving unrivalled disruption, this isn’t the first time a health crisis has collided with tremendous innovation that transformed society. For example, London’s cholera epidemic in the 19th century led to several changes, such as public health reforms and improved sanitation systems. But wider shifts, including advances in manufacturing, electrification, water and gas supply, communication, and transport networks, also followed in the industrial revolution.
Now, as then, calamity has accelerated progress, especially when it comes to digitalisation. But, like previous periods of technological evolution, change won’t happen all at once; it will grow in speed and scale over multiple decades. Paradoxically, this means the seemingly rapid pace of digital transformation is the slowest it will ever be.
Current innovation is only the beginning of an ongoing journey that will incrementally transform and improve everyday life, work, and play. Through 2021, we can expect digital transformation to blossom, offering a taste of what’s to come. Following are three examples of where we’re seeing digital innovation occur most prominently: healthcare, supply chain and customer experience.
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Bringing Covid-19 under tighter control:
At its heart, digital transformation is about making life and society better — and in the current climate, that means the focus will centre on reducing the suffering caused by Covid-19. Amid the ongoing need for robust and agile defences, artificial intelligence (AI) is set to play a bigger role in managing the pandemic and protecting the global population.
From a vaccine point of view, AI-assisted analysis will enhance allocation efficiency. For example, the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) uses AI software to process potential adverse side effects to the Covid-19 vaccine. Machine learning (ML) helps ensure the agency misses no details and can more easily identify patterns. As worldwide distribution grows, machine learning can monitor large-scale distribution, proactively predicting where bottlenecks might occur and helping identify actions to prevent them. The same could also apply for limiting safety risks, with ML harnessed to constantly watch out for patterns in individual reactions that might indicate storage or manufacturing issues.
When it comes to minimising spread, sophisticated tracking and data evaluation will prove equally valuable. By quickly processing data about new cases, AI-enabled tracking tools will help identify emerging hotspots before medical facilities are overloaded. AI also can guide smart preparation, such as ramping up localised testing and redirecting specialist equipment, including ventilators. Combined with vaccination, data-driven responses to outbreaks will go a long way towards bringing Covid-19 under control in the near-term and provide a multi-pronged mechanism for dealing with future health challenges.
Driving supply chain resilience:
Beyond directly tackling the virus, implementation of transformational technology will continue to reconfigure the way businesses function. During the last year, extreme turbulence has led organisations across sectors to increase the use of technology that allows for faster adaptation of not just AI, but also cloud platforms and robotics. According to McKinsey research, global company executives say internal digitalisation is running up to four years ahead of expectations, especially in areas such as supply chain optimisation.
So far, modernisation of supply systems and procedures has mostly revolved around improving short-term resilience. Companies have strived to limit potential complexity and wastage by using fewer product stock-keeping unit (SKU) codes and bolstering data capabilities. This strategy ensures teams align stock availability to real-time needs — be that consumer goods or urgent healthcare supplies. In the next 12 months, attention will move to how businesses can leverage technology for the long-term benefit of everyone: suppliers, sellers, employees, and customers.
In particular, development will be about redesigning supply chains as more intuitive, user-centric, and streamlined processes. For example, greater use of intelligent analytics will create instant visibility into each stage of the chain and current demand, giving suppliers and dealers the insight needed to keep deliveries flowing smoothly. Meanwhile, automation of labour-intensive tasks will ease pressure on planners, leaving them with more capacity to concentrate on creating the best possible service for customers and fuelling lasting loyalty.
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Elevating the digital customer experience:
An essential part of meeting today’s customer requirements is bolstering online offerings. Thanks to cloud technology, various businesses have now mastered the fundamentals of ecommerce, including facilitating simple online ordering, estimating precise preparation and packaging times, and enabling easy collection or delivery. But as online shopping continues to expand — with sales due to rise by another 16 percent in 2021 — companies will start setting their sights on boosting digital success by enhancing customer experience.
A good experience will depend on the right blend of granular customer understanding and convenience. Alongside technology capable of quickly resolving customer queries before they turn into larger issues — such as advanced chatbots — businesses will start integrating tools that equip them with the insight needed to provide consistently engaging interactions. The ability to generate and instantly utilise actionable data about who customers are and what they do will become a necessity. This, in turn, will spark an uptick in technology demand and supply.
As interest in real-time decisioning and granular behavioural analytics rises, so will the accessibility of AI tools. Or, in other words, an increased need will spur the mass uptake and democratisation of AI. Advanced technology will go from leading edge to commonplace, providing a more level playing field for companies of all shapes and sizes, while simultaneously ensuring they have the means to enhance customer experience persistently.
Last year brought a colossal wave of innovation, with companies in multiple industries ramping up their digital presence and power. But this was just the first step in an online ‘land rush’ that will keep on rolling. In 2021, we will see an even bigger tide of companies using new technology to address current issues and unlock broader possibilities, including strengthening Covid-19 defences, ensuring greater supply sustainability, and delivering the personalised experiences customers want. Over the coming decades, companies keen to make the most of digital transformation must prepare for the long-haul, readying themselves for steady yet unrelenting evolution that will require constant adjustment, agility, and an up-to-date store of insight.
As Dennis Gabor, the inventor of holography, once said: “The future cannot be predicted, but futures can be invented.”
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Sanjay Srivastava, Chief Digital Officer, Genpact