Digital transformation is not new and many organisations are well advanced in their transformation process. However, the urgent need to shift to the cloud has been underscored by the impact of Covid-19.

In the wake of the pandemic, we are seeing technology accelerate at breakneck speed, with moves to the cloud increasing exponentially. Behind this were two Covid-inspired trends we are likely to see much more of in 2021: the shift to remote working and more cyber security attacks. But there are a number of other equally apparent trends.

With the shifts the pandemic brought on so many companies in 2020, it’s a good time to consider how Covid-19 will continue to drive digital transformation trends in the future and what impact it will have on finance leaders throughout 2021.

Trend 1: Cybersecurity

Ironically, the pandemic turned out to be an involuntary “external security audit”, which not many enterprises were ready for. For instance, the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre handled a record number of cybersecurity incidents over the past 12 months, according to its just-published annual review.

More than 200 of the 723 incidents handled by the agency between September 2019 and end-August 2020 (a 20% increase on the 602 it handled the year before) were related to the coronavirus. Like the UK, SA has seen an increase in bogus e-mails posing as communications from health authorities. These are sent with links claiming to provide important updates, but when clicked on, lead to malware downloads on the devices.

The Sage research report, CFO 3.0 — Digital transformation beyond financial management, similarly found in SA that managing risk around fraud and cybersecurity was one of the biggest challenges facing finance professionals.

The Sage report looks at the evolution of finance leaders.

Trend 2: Remote working

One of the main themes that emerged from the Sage report is the important role the impact of remote working will play in 2021. The research finds that 27% of finance leaders accepted responsibility of managing their company’s remote workers, while 15% were “fully responsible” for driving their digital transformation agenda rather than the chief information officer.

Finance leaders have accepted the brunt of the responsibility of managing employees remotely, and this seems likely to increase next year.

Trend 3: Better connectivity

With finance leaders assuming responsibility for remote workers, one of their biggest needs becomes for faster connectivity. As workers left their offices in well-connected areas for home offices in the disparate suburbs, the biggest obstacle to online meetings was erratic connectivity. We need better networks to keep employees connected.

The good news for finance leaders is that deployment of 5G is forging ahead. Vodacom’s recent launch of 5G, as the second local provider, is partly due to emergency coronavirus regulations. In April the government permitted access to some of the radio frequency spectrum required for 5G on an emergency basis only to help fight Covid-19.

It’s in its infancy in SA, but in China, the epicentre of Covid-19, the technology was already being put to work months ago by using robots powered by 5G in hospitals to monitor user temperatures and other health applications. And there will be more applications and devices similarly upgrading the finance function. We’ve also seen a handful of mobile phones released over the past year ready for 5G connectivity: Apple in October released its 5G iPhone.

Trend 4: Analytics a competitive advantage

A number of analysts are going out on a limb to claim that companies which aren’t heavily invested in analytics in 2020 probably won’t be in business by the close of 2021. The use of big data and analytics has long been on a steady growth trajectory before Covid-19 exploded the need for data even more.

Vital data sources for Covid such as Johns Hopkins University created Covid health dashboards in real time that compile data from a myriad of sources daily to help governments and businesses make critical financial, business and life-and-death decisions that protect citizens, employees and other stakeholders.

It won’t stop there. In 2021, expect huge investment from companies into data and analytics capabilities that enable finance departments to improve financial planning and projections for leaner, smarter and faster organisations in the wake of 2020’s economic crisis.

Trend 5: AI and machine learning — powering businesses through the pandemic

Data without technology to analyse it, is rather useless. Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning tools have exploded in recent months as businesses turned to the technology to gain insights into their data. Another key theme of CFO 3.0 — Digital transformation beyond financial management is that 40% of finance leaders believe that AI and machine learning will improve forecasting and financial planning even further.

Clearly, confidence in new technology is growing, with most senior financial decisionmakers citing direct productivity benefits, according to the Sage report. As we try to make sense of more data to keep people, schools and workplaces safe, AI and machine learning will continue to shine.

This article was paid for by Sage.

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