Does your machine recognise you?
Identity is becoming critical to digital transformation, says Maeson Maherry, chief digital officer of Etion.
Regardless of size or sector, all businesses are having to transform digitally and embrace technology in order to survive in this smart digital world. Maeson Maherry, Chief Digital Officer of Etion, says: "We're living in a technology-driven environment that's defined by a succession of catchphrases such as digitalisation, the fourth industrial revolution, big data and artificial intelligence."
However, Maherry says he's somewhat cynical about the use, and possibly over-use, of terminology in the IT industry. He says: "There's very much a tendency to coin a phrase and tout that as the next new thing, but in reality it's just a new term for an existing technology that's perhaps being used in a different manner."
Regardless of the terminology used to describe it, South African business are having to change radically (digitalise) in order to stay abreast of global competition. Maherry sees two main reasons for the drive towards digital: the most important one is businesses have to transform to meet the expectations of a society that won't tolerate complexity or long delays in their business dealings. They want the same ease of use from their business transactions that they experience on social media or using applications on their smartphones.
"Society is driving change in business; you can't be slow and cumbersome or people will take their business elsewhere. If you look at how companies have transformed to accommodate this expectation, we now have job roles like user experience developers and customer feedback specialists, who are employed to look at a button and evaluate how the customer is going to experience using it. It's no longer enough just to make things work. Businesses are implementing digital transformation to meet the expectations of society today."
The second main driver for digitalisation, according to Maherry, is to enable the business to be more responsive to its market and more cost-effective in its dealings. "If you put intelligence and automation at the centre of everything that your business does and digitalise all of your processes, there isn't a business out there that won't reap the benefits."
He goes on to talk about some of the benefits that all businesses can derive from digitalisation. "The ability to onboard customers, employees, suppliers and devices onto the network in a simple and easy way has long been a requirement by business. Digitalisation enables that by automating the required processes so that it pretty much becomes a box-ticking exercise that doesn't require an IT professional."
Another bottleneck for the majority of businesses is the processing of contracts. "If you can eliminate the manual tasks around printing, scanning, couriering and storage of paper-based contracts by digitalising the processes and the documents themselves, you'll save money and simplify the entire process, making it more convenient and secure for all parties."
A big strength of digitalisation lies in helping businesses to be compliant with data privacy laws, and although the Protection of Personal Information Act hasn't come into force yet, it's only a matter of time before all businesses will have to comply. Over and above compliance, businesses need to protect their intellectual property and other confidential information from their competitors. With the advent of the cloud, there are greater concerns around keeping both internal and external communication private at all times.
Finally, if businesses are going to transact with people, it needs to be frictionless. The business, its customers and its partners or suppliers need to be able to interact from any device, anywhere and any time.
In order to achieve all of the above, the modern business has to adopt intelligence and automation, otherwise it will just be too slow. Essentially, all businesses have to become IT-dependent if they want to be agile.
And South Africa is ahead of the curve when it comes to digitalisation and innovation. Maherry says: "I'm continually surprised by the innovative thinking and technology that comes out of South Africa; all too often we don't even hear about local achievements on the technology front, we're too focused on what the rest of the world is doing."
Coming back to his earlier comment around catchphrases, Maherry says: "The Internet of things isn't really a new innovation; previously, it fell under the ambit of telemetry, measurement and control. Regardless of what you choose to call it, it's about being able to run a business efficiently and to get information about what's going on in that business."
What has changed, according to Maherry, is the ability to collect data from everywhere. However, if you start collecting all this data by putting sensors on anything and everything, you must also be able to interpret and understand all of the data collected. Data analysis tells you what's going on in your business. It's all about how you interpret it, and that depends on each individual business's requirements. For example, a farmer will have quite different expectations of the data collected than would a factory.
However, he cautions, if you collect the data, analyse it and understand it, but don't act on it, then all this is for naught. Where that action requires interaction between human and machine, the ability for the machine to recognise an authorised individual who may change settings, is key. That's the real intelligence, says Maherry.
"You have to introduce controls and digital signatures and workflows, so that you can identify yourself to the machine, and so that you know which machine (or device) is supplying the data that you're acting on. Everything has to be identifiable, so that you know whether you can legitimately believe the information at hand, as it comes from an identifiable source, but the machine must equally be able to identify you too."
It all comes down to two things: transparency and immutability in terms of the identification of people and things, and a digital signature helps achieve this.
When you consider the majority of companies don't even realise how many machines they have, the ability to identify everything becomes even more important and it's key to making digitalisation work, says Maherry.
Is it possible to survive in today's competitive, tech-driven environment without going this route? Not for long, says Maherry. You might survive for a while, but not for long.