Picture: 123RF/RA2 STUDIO
Picture: 123RF/RA2 STUDIO

Last year turned out to be, among many other things, the single greatest catalyst of digital transformation across industries and regions. As the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted economies around the world, businesses had to quickly adapt to enable remote work to remain productive.

World trade declined by about 9.2% in 2020. Recent data from the World Bank indicated that the sub-Saharan African economy will contact by 3.3%, pushing the region into its first recession in 25 years and about 40-million people into extreme poverty.

Lacking the deep pockets and extensive social security safety nets of their more developed peers, African nations will need to apply ingenuity and innovation to get the continent’s growth and development back on track.

The response by Africa’s business sector could hold the key to how the continent overcomes the economic challenges ahead, while also building greater resilience and adaptability for future disruptions.

One of the outcomes of the widespread disruption of 2020 is that business leaders and their technology partners are likely to forgo large, waterfall projects in favour of taking small, consistent steps on their business transformation journey in 2021.

A strategy of iterative innovation can enable businesses to make consistent improvements to their current products, services and strategies. Iterative innovation implies that businesses enter into a process of continuous improvement, measurement and learning. Successful iterative innovation ensures the business extends its capabilities while navigating any new disruptions or emerging complexities.

Taking an iterative innovation approach means huge, expensive and lengthy digital transformation projects are substituted with a greater number of much smaller, well-defined and clearly measurable projects that focus on delivering quick business value.

However, iterative innovation requires an environment of learning. Analytics should be embedded in business processes to provide real-time visibility over the performance of these innovation projects.

By measuring affect, analysing insights and applying learning, business leaders and their technology partners can ensure each iteration builds on what has been achieved, moving the business closer to its goals.

In the face of the disruption every industry is experiencing — economic, technological and pandemic related — there is tremendous value in the ability to take constant steps towards greater performance, productivity and innovation. However, this requires bold leadership.

Business leaders need to mobilise and bring functional heads together to actively drive projects to a successful outcome. The best business transformation projects are built around active participation from executives whose involvement helps ensure the project delivers direct business value and supports organisational strategy.

If organisations wish to thrive in our disruptive digital economy, innovation needs to be driven throughout the company from both IT and business.

What does this mean for their technology partners? First, technology partners need to engage with their customers at a business level, not a purely technological one. The goal should be quick time-to-value, and what can de done to achieve positive business results and drive iterative innovation quickly and consistently.

Second, a customer-first strategy is vital. This may mean making small sacrifices in the short term to secure long-term value. For example, instead of insisting on a total digital transformation project, technology partners should seek opportunities for smaller deployments that address specific issues along the business value chain to produce measurable results. As each project builds on the last, bigger business and technology priorities become achievable.

Third, an organisational culture shift is needed. The nature of business is that we all pursue monthly and quarterly targets, and our success is often measured along similar lines. An exceptional sales strategy would balance the need for immediate results with what’s best for the customer in the longer term. This requires that leaders take a long view, and not sacrifice long-term gains for short-term outcomes.

To echo Albert Einstein, we can’t solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them. The digital transformation of the African continent is continuing apace. By changing our collective strategy and shifting focus to a more iterative approach to innovation, the continent’s business sector could be well-placed to emerge from our current crisis stronger, more resilient and with greater long-term sustainability.

• Smith is MD of SAP Africa

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