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2021 trends: Gearing up for acceleration and uncertainty

How to become resilient in the face of uncertainty is the golden thread that will define the months to come.
Read time 7min 30sec

The COVID-19 pandemic made it clear that despite any organisation’s best efforts to predict what’s coming, the possibility for major disruption always exists. With data towards the end of the year providing hope and showing the South African economy in recovery, the threat of recurring waves and questions around vaccine availability mean 2021 is unlikely to be a smooth return to the comfort of normalcy. Expect more twists as we transition into a post-pandemic world.

You could say that in 2021, the only certainty is uncertainty. How to become resilient in the face of this uncertainty is the golden thread that will define the months to come.

At the heart of evolving strategic trends is how businesses are using the digital acceleration gains of the last year to become more able to handle the curveballs. The most important technologies and trends of 2021 aren’t those at the bleeding edge of innovation, they’re the ones that allow organisations to scale and adapt rapidly, and make intelligent decisions more quickly.

Social purpose becomes core

As the world emerges from a year of disruption and shifting priorities, it’s not enough to just exist to make money. The impact and response to COVID-19 and reactions to high-profile cases of social injustice have seen a growth worldwide in scepticism towards those in power who turn a blind eye to the issues around them.

Kantar research confirms that consumers now expect their brands to be purpose-led rather than profit-led. Living your purpose as a brand is key to creating trust among consumers, who are looking for leadership in a time of uncertainty. According to the 2020 Trust Barometer, 85% of people want brands to ‘solve my problems’, while 80% believe brands have a responsibility to ‘solve society’s problems’.

If COVID-19 has made one thing clear, it’s that people will notice if you say one thing and do another. They notice if you price gouge your products, engage in bad marketing, or put your employees at risk.

You can’t fake purpose.

What that exact purpose looks like will differ across organisations and industries, but the one trait that unites purpose-driven businesses is that they prioritise listening, not only to their customers, but also to their communities. Expect to see more initiatives aimed at engaging with social issues, from dedicated stakeholder boards to ‘voice of society’ metrics.

Hyper-connected reality

Thanks to COVID-19, businesses were forced to embrace rapid digital acceleration in the space of a few months, both in how they engaged customers as well as how they conducted operations internally. In 2021, they’ll have space to explore the benefits of this increased digital maturity.

Having experienced the benefits of a digital reality, demand for a blended experience will increase as people transition from life in lockdown to a partially reopened world. Having become used to remote living, they’ll expect the ‘real world’ to offer that same convenience and ease that can only be enabled through digital. From virtual queues to curbside pick-ups, making it easy to come and go is good business. Meanwhile, fears of contracting the virus will have served as a catalyst for the mainstream adoption of digital enhancements such as contactless, zero-UI and self-service options, which will become common.

From virtual queues to curbside pick-ups, making it easy to come and go is good business.

With the adoption of digital engagement, digital marketing and social media engagement have arguably accelerated over the critical mass tipping point; this will open opportunities for deeper, two-way customer engagement. Conversational AI like Alexa can allow for more intuitive real-time interactions without waiting for human intervention.

Key to offering value in this hyper-connected reality will be to go in with a ‘digital-as-default mindset’.

Composable digital enterprise

2020 saw much of the business world abandon the idea of a centralised physical workspace or storefront. Remote working is increasingly standard and the ability to service customers whenever and wherever they are has become a key differentiator.

The pressure to be able to do business everywhere and anywhere has led to the rise of the composable digital enterprise that allows businesses to be able to set up operations like Lego sets according to where and what they’re needed for. Organisations are using automation, micro-services, APIs and the cloud to pivot beyond their core competencies and traditional marketplaces.

Enabling the digital workforce is about more than just the ability to work remotely – more fluid ways of working mean businesses can access the skills of a much larger workforce, unrestricted by geography. However, to fully benefit, organisations will need to reimagine the employee experience, from how they onboard new starters to how they help existing employees meet the unique challenges of working from home.

Organisations that are able to ‘Lego-fy’ themselves will enjoy happier customers, more fulfilled workforces and much greater resilience as a result.

Accelerated analytics at the edge

In a post-COVID-19 world, machine learning, cloud computing and process automation aren’t just nice-to-haves, they're the foundation for business survival. Digital acceleration, combined with the need to cut costs, has seen the proliferation of robotic process automation (RPA) to improve operational efficiency while driving resilience. With so many organisations having finally gotten a taste of what automation will do for their business, expect to see a lot more investment in AI and automation, especially within HR due to the demands of the fluid workforce.

The shift to a digital-first anywhere business will allow brands to embed agile analytics at the contact point, so any customer engagement is a potential source of rich insights. Location-based AI will also see widespread use as brands seek ways to enhance physical experiences using digital, creating an exponential customer wave in its wake.

The heightened awareness of the risks of algorithmic bias and reputation-damaging analytical decisioning will see the emergence of ethical AI guidelines that an organisation will expect internal operations and its partners to abide by. The use of specific AI-powered tools designed to detect and combat algorithmic bias will also become more commonplace, effectively using automated mechanisms to manage the risks associated with the decentralisation of analytics.

The use of all of this AI and data analysis is also going to need a lot of processing power – so much so that even the unlimited cloud based computing construct will find its limits. This will lead to the rise of edge-based AI-powered chipsets moving to a more decentralised computing model in the same way we saw a shift away from mainframe to server client architectures in the 80s and 90s.

Security everywhere

In 2020, companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter took high-profile stands against misinformation and fake news. Others, like Apple, are making data privacy a key part of their value propositions, showing the growing resonance of user privacy as a marketing message as consumer awareness grows.

The sharp rise in digital traffic has unsurprisingly led to an increase in cyber security attacks, exacerbated by the shift to remote working and emergence of Internet of things threats. Cyber crime is expected to cost the world $6 trillion in 2021, making it one of the top business priorities of the coming year.

As organisations shift to the everywhere business, their security models will need to undergo a similar shift. Keeping consumer data safe will mean embracing the mesh approach and zero trust design to secure digital access points regardless of location. Spend into AI and security orchestration automation and response (SOAR) technologies will also escalate. Just as businesses have begun introducing hand sanitisers and contact tracing at their physical storefronts, they will need to make sure every digital touchpoint is designed to keep users safe.

While security solutions will continue to advance, organisations will also recognise the compounding effect of data breaches. As each individual leaked online profile is enriched by multiple breaches, the prevalence of identity theft will increase and, coupled with it, a focus on prevention and cure.

So where do we go from here?

There’s no putting the brakes on what’s to come. COVID-19 has fuelled incredible digital acceleration, but it will be up to organisations to learn to tackle the hairpin turns in this faster, more exciting circuit in 2021. Are you ready to embrace the digital race? 

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