The best part of any year as it draws to a close is that it means the start of a brand-new and as-yet untarnished year. Sometimes this milestone is exactly what we need to shake off the experiences of the past. This is also the time when all thought leaders come out of the woodwork of research obscurity and divulge to the world what they have learned over the past year and why we need to integrate their learnings into our forthcoming strategic plan. But wait. Lunging feet first into the latest and greatest technology advances may have been a good strategy historically, but let’s not forget that we are in the midst of a quantum business shift. In 2021, should we really be embracing cutting-edge technology, or is it time for some reflection? The answer isn’t an easy one.
Reflection is good
It is unlikely that anyone would argue that 2020 brought forward some unprecedented challenges. Spending some time to reflect on how technology and business processes functioned throughout this time will provide some insight into how best to proceed through 2021. When faced with the safety challenges imposed upon us by COVID, many organizations reverted to the 1980’s practice of Theory X management. They imposed new levels of structure and monitoring without consideration as to any accountability due to immature business processes. In essence, they implemented technology as a way to monitor human behavior and productivity. Other organizations took a different approach. They punched up their business processes, thereby releasing staff of cumbersome administration and reducing the need for human contact. Analyzing the approach undertaken can provide insights that will work in our favor to determine the next steps and how those feed into our strategic IT business plan. During 2020, did we lean on employees to pick up the slack of our flawed processes? Or did we embrace the opportunity to improve our processes and use technology to support remote work and social distancing?
In 2021, technology doesn’t come first
When looking to improve our existing technology or implement new technology, a standard first step is to understand the desired state of the business process in question. The risk of jumping into vendor selection and application development is that we may not have a full understanding of the issue. As our plans for 2021 evolve, we need to ensure that we have captured exactly what the business problem is that we are trying to resolve. The first step is not to embrace the latest trend. The first step is to understand the current state of the business processes in question, including the pain points and must have deliverables. Only once the business problem is fully understood should we reach out to see what current technology trends may offer a solution. The year 2020 gave us a rather unusual advantage. We had the opportunity to slow down and to better understand what the most important business processes are that allowed us to continue on with business as usual and to continue to benefit from the goods that we produce and the services that we provide.
Fragmented data produces questionable results
Another important lesson learned from 2020 is that gathering data from fragmented sources may not provide an accurate picture. This has been known for a while but did become better understood as we transitioned our businesses to accommodate the existing health threat. To provide upper management with the data they require to make important strategic decisions, we often need to grab our data from multiple sources. As we transitioned to remote work, gathering data from these various sources became a problem. In some cases, while we may have had an awareness of the different places of data origin, remotely accessing that data brought new concerns to light. In addition, merging data from several different sources and locations was a challenge, including the possibility that incomplete files were loading. Without an accurate way to test for data quality and accuracy, there existed the potential that we were using flawed data to make decisions.
This awareness that occurred throughout 2020 resulted in customer data platforms (CDP) being discussed as one of the top technology trends of 2021. CDPs gather and organize data from multiple sources. The data is updated in real-time, and the resulting dashboards and reports can be run just-in-time.
The new office strategy
One of the most talked-about decisions when we discuss our 2021 plan is the transition back to physical office space. The theories run from a complete transition back to the physical office, to embracing remote work and abandoning expensive office towers, to everything in between. This is a decision that each enterprise will need to assess based on independent business needs. The thing is, we never knew that we had the option to make this decision before. While some organizations embraced remote work, the security was loose, and collaboration was nonexistent. We now know that organizations with mature business processes can, in fact, successfully exist while allowing employees to work from home. New tools for collaboration encourage and support collaboration among colleagues while providing secure collaboration environments. Virtual private networks provide secure access to shared office drives, thereby eliminating the need to store corporate data on insecure drives located in a potentially insecure location. If nothing else, 2020 taught us that with some planning, there is the option to let our property lease expire.
2021 and technology: Let the planning begin
As we begin our next planning cycle, we need to consider changes that may not be driven by the latest trends in technology. If we found ourselves leaning on our employees to pick up the slack of our immature business processes, 2021 is the time to assess the business process maturity level and look at changes to increase maturity level.
If we found ourselves using existing technology to reduce duplication of effort and human interaction, this could be an indicator of more mature business processes, and next steps might be to look at where important data is located and how effectively the data can be brought together from multiple sources.
Once our business processes are fully understood and data is accessible from a centralized location, there is the option to consider if remote work could be an option going forward. However, it is important to note that if business processes are immature and collaboration is not a standard practice, a work-from-home strategy may not be the best way to proceed in the short term.
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