Kathy Gibson reports – South African companies have fallen behind in their digital transformation efforts, despite the pandemic and lockdown making digital more relevant than ever before.

Although just over half of companies are either fully transformed or underway, 34% are still on the journey and the balance not even started, according to the Digital Corporation in South Africa 2021 survey from World Wide Worx.

Arthur Goldstuck, MD of World Wide Worx, says this is surprising because it was assumed that the pandemic and lockdowns would have seen companies accelerate digital transformation.

As many as two-thirds of respondents said they had gone backwards in digital transformation, an indication that the pandemic slowed efforts to digitalise organisations.

While many of these had slowed only a little, one in five, or 20%, said the fall had been significant. This, in turn, hampered their efforts to create an efficient remote workforce, with almost the same proportion – 24% – saying they had only a few staff members working remotely throughout the year.

On the other hand, the proportion of companies that increased their levels of digital transformation over the first year of the pandemic, 15%, is close to the proportion of those who had all staff working remotely – 18% – over this period.

Almost two-thirds (64%) of South African enterprises expect all staff to make a full return to the workplace, with fewer than one in five (18%) expecting to accommodate half or less. This means, while the world of work will be utterly changed, there is no unanimity about work-from-home being the new norm.

This is good news for the commercial property industry as well as infrastructure providers, who will be tasked with equipping organisations for a more flexible future.

Another surprising statistic was one-third of companies that expect staff to be on call whenever needed, Goldstuck says. A relatively small 12% of respondents expected 24/7 availability, but another 22% want staff available on an ad hoc basis at any time the company requires them outside office hours.

Despite the slowed pace of digital transformation, only 8% of respondents decreased their spending on IT, and almost half increased this spending. This can largely be seen as a response to remote working, and equipping staff to work from home, rather than for transforming processes.

“Spending is surprisingly uniform across numerous operational categories, from computers and cybersecurity to accounting and ecommerce,” says Goldstuck. “However, in terms of budgeting priorities for specific technologies, one category stands out above the rest, namely connectivity. That tells you almost everything you need to know about the information worker during the pandemic.”

While some operational categories of IT spending were at the bottom of the list, none was cited by less than 62% of respondents.

The research provides the clearest picture yet of the role played by the fourth industrial revolution in the South African corporation. While cloud computing is second only to business intelligence in terms of budgeting for specific technologies, the technologies usually associated with 4IR occupy the foot of the priority table.

Despite the economic slump of the past year, the price of IT products is still not the most important factor in purchasing decisions, although it comes close.

The top three factors are quality of product or service, maintenance and after-sales service, and price. Of 15 purchasing factors measured, none was cited by fewer than 75% of respondents.

“This reveals that companies have become far more demanding,” says Goldstuck. “Factors like relationship and future-proof solutions (each 86%) indicate a more discerning customer, and the full set of criteria becomes almost a rule book for IT providers.

“The new normal is not only about providing for digital and mobile needs, then, but also about servicing a new kind of corporate customer.”

However, Goldstuck stresses that there is not yet a new normal. “Not all companies are able to embrace the new normal – so we can only conclude that the new normal is not yet the norm.”

Through the pandemic, businesses have identified the need to be ready for everything, says Deirdre Fryer, head of solutions engineering for Syspro in Europe, Middle East and Africa. “In all of this technology has come forward as anon negotiable tool.”

There is no one size-fits-all technology, she adds. “IT is more important that a variety of technologies co-work together, and that we work with people. Mutually-beneficial, symbiotic technology is what will be needed to succeed.

“This is key for the future.”

Digital transformation momentum has grown over the years. “But then we hit the pandemic, and we thought it would accelerate our digital transformation journeys,” Fryer says.

“But what we have seen that , while it’s still an important topic, digital transformation projects have been impacted.

“We have seen them evolve and shifted from the doors of the CIO and expanded to be more immersive across the organisation, taking a more holistic approach.”

Businesses are looking to reassess their digital transformation projects, Fryer points out. “The shift in how everyone of us has adapt, means the way we look at technology and embrace technology has shifted for every person.

“People are more digitally aware, and that has changed people’s ideas of digital transformation. It has allowed them to rethink the value of DX for an organisation.”

Pre-pandemic, digital transformation projects were typically isolated and focused on a specific needs, Fryer explains. “Now business are reevaluating, looking at incorporating technology more holistically and getting a more end-to-end approach. The entire business is looking at how to leverage technology.

“Today, technology projects have to be more inclusive.

“Businesses need to be more agile, to avoid being in a position again where the impact of not being digital will put them in such a disruptive state,” she adds.

“From a technology perspective, this demonstrate the importance of business and technology partners working together and collaborating together.”

Greg McDonald, director of systems engineering at Dell Technologies, South Africa, confirms that technology has served as an enabler to remote work since the onset of the pandemic.

“While most companies have embarked on some sort of digital transformation pre-pandemic, efforts to digitalise slowed with the need to focus on remote working set-ups with connectivity standing out as a priority,” he says. “However, there is a direct correlation between how transformed an organisation is and how equipped it is to facilitate remote work.

“The Fourth Industrial Revolution is here, and budgeting priorities show how organisations are mobilising in response to this with business intelligence, cloud computing and software-as-a-service at the top of the spending list.”

Bryan Hattingh, CEO of Cycan, adds: “Remote working needs a digital sauce.

“It is not only that the digital medium is essential for working flexibly, but also that it allows greater innovation in leadership. That needs, among other, investment in innovative processes.”