Kathy Gibson reports – Technology has accelerated the blurring of lines between the physical and virtual worlds, and the trend looks set to continue.

Sihlalo Jordan, deputy-CEO of Deloitte, points out that the world has seen a technology revolution of unprecedented change. “And we will only see this accelerate in the next five to 10 years,” he says. “Billions have been invested in tech start-ups just this year, which will have a huge impact on the world.”

Paul Khanna, global innovation leader at Deloitte, explains that certain macro forces are shaping current trends and driving us further forward.

When it comes to interaction, the enabler is digital experience, moving from channel to human-centred design. Disrupters are digital reality reimagining engagement; while the next horizon is ambient experience that includes transparent, ubiquitous interfaces.

For information, the enablers are data and analytics, with data management, architecture and insights. AI is a disrupter, allowing organisations to predict, prescribe, augment and automate. On the next horizon, exponential intelligence would provide symbolic, deep and broad reasoning.

In terms of computation, cloud is the enabler with its flexibility and ubiquity. Distributed platforms are disrupters, offering distribution trust, assets and connectivity. Quantum computing, with exponential computation, is on the next horizon.

Deloitte has unveiled its Tech Trends 2021 report, which aims to contextualise the technology seen today, and unlocking business and societal benefits for Africa. The nine trends that Deloitte believes business leaders need to action address the enterprise, the data, and human capital.

At the heart of the enterprise, Khanna outlines the importance of and engineered strategy, a core revival, and the application of machine learning operations (MLOps) and industrialised artificial intelligence (AI).

“Strategy can no longer be a pet project on the side, or a seperate part of the organisation,” he says. “Business and technology strategies are increasingly inseparable, and we are seeing that strategy leads technology.

“In addition, new board members are coming in who are technologists at heart. They are not necessarily IT people, but they are tech-savvy.”

Strategy now requires that technology be embedded in the organisation, Khanna says. “You don’t want to future proof something – it needs to be future read. You need to understand where the trends are, and where the environment is moving.

“This trend looks to ensure that organisations have much more time ahead to be more thoughtful and more creative.”

Core revival is about the C-suite increasingly viewing technology modernisation as an imperative to enable strategic change. “Pioneering IT leaders are embracing new approaches, technological and business cases to revitalise their core assets,” Khanna says.

“Given what we see around cloud, we are seeing a fresh business case proposal. There are opportunities for business cases to evolve, and there are a lot of creative opportunities coming through now. There is an evolution in the business case to help the organisation move forward.”

He points out that there is a transformation in how code is developed, with a lot of opportunities now for low-code or no-code development. “This is really taking hold, especially with the types of platforms that organisations are using. They are using low-code or no-code to get to grips with their biggest pain points.”

There is also a lot of talk about revitalising legacy ERP systems. “Studies show that many organisations still have legacy applications that consume a lot of resources and are not what we consider modern,” Khanna says. “There is a move to relook at these system and replatform them into something that is more modern.

“The world is facing constant, rapid disruption,” he adds. “We are living in a very unique time terms of change and innovation. Can we really say we have built systems to last?

“We think what’s needed is the kinetic enterprise that is built to evolve. To do this, they need to be lean, intelligent, responsive and inclusive.”

Supply unchained speaks to new trends in the supply chain.

“We have touted the supply chain for the longest time, but it turns out it wasn’t as robust as once thought,” says Khanna.

The supply chain has shifted from a cost centre to a value driver, and we are seeing the creation of several new supply chain models.

Interoperable data is now key, with data becoming more valuable when it is aggregated.

“We are also seeing opportunities to leverage robotics and drones – and we will see more solutions coming into the supply chain, including IoT applications and more.”

The next three tech trends ties into the theme of data: the art of the possible, and includes MLOps and industrialised AI; the machine data revolution, and zero trust.

Khanna explains that ML and AI are now “grown up”, and have become more industrialised.

Sophisticated machine learning models help companies efficiently discover patterns, reveal anomalies, make predictions and decisions, and generate insights – and are increasingly becoming key drivers of organizational performance.

However, many organisations are hamstrung in their efforts by clunky, brittle development and deployment processes that stifle experimentation and hinder collaboration among product teams, operational staff, and data scientists.

As AI and ML mature, a strong dose of engineering and operational discipline can help organisations overcome these obstacles and efficiently scale AI to enable business transformation.

To realize the broader, transformative benefits of AI and ML, Deloitte believes the era of artisanal AI must give way to one of automated, industrialised insights. This will be accomplished with MLOps, also known as ML CI/CD, ModelOps, and ML DevOps: the application of DevOps tools and approaches to model development and delivery to industrialise and scale machine learning, from development and deployment to ongoing model maintenance and management.

The machine data revolution is driven as a growing number of AI pioneers realise that legacy data models and infrastructure – all designed to support decision-making by humans, not machines – could be a roadblock to ML success. So they are taking steps to disrupt the data management value chain from end to end.

As part of a growing trend, they are deploying new technologies and approaches including advanced data capture and structuring capabilities, analytics to identify connections among random data, and next-generation cloud-based data stores to support complex modeling.

Together, these tools and techniques can help organisations turn growing volumes of data into a future-ready foundation for a new era in which machines will not only augment human decision-making but make real-time and at-scale decisions that humans cannot.

Zero trust becomes more important as sophisticated cyberattacks and shifting enterprise environments undermine the traditional– and somewhat flawed–castle-and-moat approach to cybersecurity.

Zero trust is rooted in the concept that modern enterprise environments necessitate a different approach to security: there’s no longer a defined perimeter inside which every user, workload, device, and network is inherently trusted.

In zero trust architectures, every access request should be validated based on all available data points, including user identity, device, location, and other variables that provide context to each connection and allow more nuanced, risk-based decisions.

Data, applications, workloads, and other resources are treated as individual, manageable units to contain breaches, and access is provided based on the principle of least privilege.

The automation and engineering required to properly implement zero trust security architectures can help strengthen security posture, simplify security management, improve end-user experience, and enable modern enterprise environments.

But the move to zero trust could require significant effort and planning, including addressing foundational cybersecurity issues, automating manual processes, and planning for transformational changes to the security organization, the technology landscape, and the enterprise itself.

The human element is underpinned by the last three trends: rebooting the digital workplace; bespoke for billions – digital meets physical; and DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) technology – tools for equity.

Rebooting the digital workplace takes place in the context of the world’s largest unplanned work-from-home experiment, with many business leaders asking as yet unanswered questions about remote work: is it the rule or the exception; is a permanently remote workforce sustainable; how will productivity and employee well-being be affected; will innovation suffer in the absence of face-to-face peer connections; and what will be the role of the physical office?

Companies may be able to overcome the digital workplace’s deficits and ambiguities by more intentionally embracing its positive aspects, including the data generated by workers’ tools and platforms. This can help them optimise individual and team performance and customise the employee experience through personalised recommendations, enabling remote work to be far more than a diminished proxy for the traditional office.

As onsite workspaces and headquarters evolve, organisations can use this data to create thriving, productive, and cost-effective offices that are seamlessly interwoven with the remote experience.

The question of bespoke interactions arises from most of the population having adapted to digital interactions to conduct their everyday lives, whether working from home, online schooling, or ordering groceries. Yet the prevalence of digital interactions has left many people pining for the days of in-person interactions.

Going forward, Deloitte expects that consumers will no longer be satisfied with distinct physical or digital brand experiences: they will expect a blend of the best of both–highly personalised, in-person experiences without sacrificing the convenience of online transactions.

In the next 18 to 24 months, is it thought that in-person and digital experiences will become more seamless and intertwined. Online and offline interactions will not be separate experiences anymore, and the customer’s journey will be made up of in-person and digital elements that are integrated and intentionally designed to create a seamless brand experience that’s tailored to fit the individual customer’s behaviors, attitudes, and preferences.

The shift to DEI technology is driven by organisations embracing diversity, equity, and inclusion as business imperatives, with a growing number adopting holistic, organisation-wide workforce strategies that address biases and inequities to enhance enterprise and employee performance.

While HR professionals often lead DEI strategies, technology leaders play a critical role as a strategic partner by designing, developing, and executing tech-enabled solutions to address increasingly complex DEI workforce challenges.

Over the coming months, Deloitte expects enterprises to adopt new tools that incorporate advanced analytics, automation and AI, including natural language processing and machine learning, to help inform, deliver, and measure the impact of DEI.