As SA navigates its way through lockdown measures and confirmed Covid-19 cases head towards 600,000, it's time to take stock and act. Many industries can regard this challenge as an opportunity to rewire the fundamentals of the way they do business.

This is an opportunity for SA to completely embrace digital transformation. Indeed, the wealth of opportunity at our country’s disposal in terms of technological skills ensures it is uniquely positioned to support broader digital transitions that can unlock more than R5-trillion in value over the next decade, according to Accenture.

We have seen sectors across SA respond well amid the crisis, with telecommunications and IT companies well set to lead the way. The banking sector’s “early adopter” mentality allowed the industry to transact without traditional branch support. Additionally, while the retail sector and our health services struggled with both the positive and negative effects on their businesses — they have organically reshaped their abilities to respond to a population in lockdown.

There is no doubt that the tourism industry has been one of the hardest hit sectors, followed by manufacturing and oil and gas, which have  struggled to navigate the unique circumstances affecting their business models.

The past decade saw the worddisruption” take on a new technology-fuelled and opportunity-laden meaning. But the first few months of 2020 reintroduced its  traditional meaning: an interruption to the way we conduct business. This global pandemic is forcing businesses to rethink the very foundation of what they offer. It  is calling on businesses to radically transform as a matter of survival.

History will look back on this time as the moment of sudden acceleration for digital transformation in  business and society.  If there is anything the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us, it’s the critical importance of technology solutions that enable speed, flexibility, insight and innovation.

In fact, industries are finding that choosing which technology platforms power their business is the most consequential decision they can make. Technology platforms are the basis of competitive advantage in the 21st century, and opportunities can mean greater progress. For example, we should not stop progress in enabling greater financial inclusion on the continent.

The SA Reserve Bank’s Vision 2025 has set out the strategic objectives in building a world-class national payment system (NPS) to better serve South Africans and the economy inclusively and as a whole. Covid-19 may be the long-awaited catalyst needed to motivate the industry to overcome some of the biggest challenges facing SA’s payment sector by embracing the transparency, speed, efficiency and traceability of blockchain technology. In further facilitating highly secure mobile payments across the nation the affect on economic activity will be manifold and holistically support ailing sectors such as transport, logistics, and  manufacturing.

Take the entertainment industry, which has been leading in innovation throughout Africa. Entertainment leader MultiChoice began its digital transformation journey many years ago and is setting the benchmark for many South African and African organisations. Recognising that innovation, first-class content and exceptional customer experiences have never been more important; they set out to transform customer experiences.

It’s time that all industries embraced a disruptive and transformative culture, and realised the value that technology and digital transformation can bring to a country that has some of the best technologies, engineers and solutions across sectors.

But there  are challenges blocking the fast-tracking of transformation that Covid-19 pandemic offers.

To meet the challenge of Covid-19, the IBM Research lab in Johannesburg is collaborating with the Gauteng department of health, University of Pretoria and Wits University, to develop a dashboard to help officials make accurate decisions to fight the spread of the coronavirus. The dashboard uses anonymous demographic data collected by the province to pinpoint hotspots and make data-driven decisions. A local innovation tackling this global pandemic on the ground in Gauteng, this sets the benchmark for what can be achieved when digital transformation is prioritised.

Legacy systems and infrastructure across the country pose a challenge to adopting technology at pace. Many organisations still using legacy systems need to embrace a “digital-first” mindset and culture to help the nation realise the potential that can be generated by employing innovative and disruptive technologies.

There is no point in companies evolving digitally without creating employment in the process. As such, challenges that can be addressed immediately relate to skills and creating a workforce equipped with skills for the future. For the better part of the past decade, a changing labour market and rising unemployment rates were heightened by ongoing concerns over the widening skills gap. The reality is that millions of workers will need to be retrained and reskilled as a result of AI in the next couple of years and this will be crucial for organisations of all sizes and across industries post-Covid.

As digital transformation grows and evolves, addressing the skills gap has been a key area of focus for IBM in SA. We know the future will be driven by digital, cloud, and cognitive IT skills to help support a 21st-century workforce, and we’ve made a significant investment to help address this need.

Covid-19 has disrupted the social and economic fabric of the nation, in  a clear sign that we must intensify  digital transformation across SA.

There may be challenges but it is incumbent on companies such as IBM to partner with  the government and the private sector to identify the opportunities that have a lasting affect on SA’s present and future. The introduction of new technologies and upskilling the nation’s youth are priorities that will not only fulfil our potential, but also help us all navigate our current circumstances. With a truly collaborative mindset we can achieve those goals and spur the next generation of growth in a country full of promise.

• Ratshefola is country general manager for IBM SA.

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