Opinion: APIs can solve digital transformation headaches
The COVID-19 pandemic led to a massive deceleration in the global economy, as organisations and even societies have been forced to wind down their activities in line with lockdown restrictions. The UN estimates that worldwide economic losses from the pandemic will surpass $1 trillion.
Yet, despite these immediate and painful costs, a notable side-effect of the pandemic is that it seems to have pushed digital initiatives even further up the agenda for many organisations. The ability to launch new digital initiatives quickly has become even more crucial, so many organisations are now reassessing their capability to accelerate digital transformation and innovate faster than ever.
The dramatic increase in digital demand
Much of this pressure is due to changing habits brought about by national lockdowns. Ofcom’s annual Online Nation report recently revealed that the UK’s internet use surged to record levels in April 2020, as adults spent more than a quarter of their waking day online. Increased use of video calling apps, and the move away from traditional television to video streaming platforms caused the demand for digital services to soar.
As the demand for these services has risen, so too has the expectation for those services to offer a sophisticated, connected experience. In other words, digital products and services have never been so highly valued.
Even as lockdown restrictions begin to ease, these patterns in consumer behaviour and their rising expectations for digital services look set to remain. This puts many organisations in a tricky situation.
Inevitably, budgets have been hit hard by the lockdowns: Gartner estimates that IT spending will fall by 8% in comparison to 2019. With ‘business as usual’ remaining a distant prospect, there’s greater pressure on organisations to find a solution that maximises the value of their existing resources and digital capabilities if they’re to thrive in the ‘new normal’.
Even in normal times, IT departments struggled to meet their digital transformation goals as quickly as required. According to research, 59% of IT directors reported that they were unable to deliver all of their projects last year. Much of this is due to IT complexity and the challenges inherent in trying to integrate various data sources, applications and systems in an agile way that supports the goals of transformation.
All too often, organisations rely on linking capabilities together with point-to-point integrations, which are inflexible and unsuited to the dynamism of modern IT environments. As a result, they find it hard to quickly launch innovative, customer-centric products and services, as they can’t bring together the capabilities that drive them in a cost and time-effective manner.
At the same time, it’s often the case that digital transformation is left largely to the IT department. IT teams – already stretched by their day-to-day maintenance responsibilities – are increasingly tasked with driving the entire organisation forward, with limited support from other teams in the business.
Understandably, this has led to a widening ‘delivery gap’ between what the business expects, and what IT is able to achieve. When we factor in that IT directors will now potentially have fewer resources at their disposal, it’s clear that a solution urgently needs to be found.
APIs and the composable enterprise
To overcome their digital transformation headaches, many organisations have looked to APIs as the solution. With an API strategy in place, IT directors can re-imagine data and capabilities as a series of re-usable ‘building blocks’ that can be plugged in and out to build new products and services quickly.
By exposing these APIs via an integration platform, organisations can foster a culture of reuse, so IT teams don’t need to start every digital project from scratch if part of the capability they need has already been created elsewhere. This is what’s known as a composable enterprise strategy, and it makes for a much more agile operation. At a time when organisations need to maximise the value of their resources, those that foster a composable enterprise will be the examples to follow.
One organisation discovering the value of APIs to navigate the pressures of the new normal is the Rail Delivery Group, the UK’s rail industry membership body. Facing a situation where passenger numbers reduced by as much as 95%, the Rail Delivery Group was able to adapt by prioritising digital innovation and equipping itself to quickly launch new customer-facing services to support the key workers still relying on the rail network.
By embracing an API strategy, rather than putting the brakes on innovation, the Rail Delivery Group has been able to connect various sources of data, to present customers with a joined-up picture of everything that might affect their journey, such as live updates on the facilities available at stations, or seat availability on trains, to help maintain social distancing. As the rail industry ramps up capacity once more, having the agility to quickly roll out new customer-facing innovations such as these will help manage the transition with greater ease.
The new normal
It’s fair to assume that ‘normality’ as we knew it won’t return for some time, and the pandemic will leave a permanent mark on businesses and societies alike. Yet the role the pandemic has played in accelerating digital transformation is one clear effect that organisations cannot ignore. Many were already putting digital initiatives in place long before the crisis, and are now looking at accelerating those projects to deal with the impact of the lockdown on business continuity. All this has effectively underlined the value of digital transformation, and encouraged businesses of all types to get their digital houses in order.
In the ‘new normal’, APIs have emerged as effective catalysts for digital transformation. By unlocking the value of their existing resources, organisations can enable the agility needed to meet new digital demands, and put themselves in a better position to succeed.
How tech is transforming HR in a hybrid workforce
For most of its history, the HR technology function has been more comfortable as an implementation partner than an innovator, handling technology enquiries from various stakeholders, collecting data and analytics, and dealing with system maintenance.
But this is starting to change, as HR technology budgets and expectations grow, says Gartner’s Group Vice President Brian Kropp, a man known for providing cutting-edge insights to the most progressive HR execs.
“With the widespread shift to remote work, HR technology leaders quickly had to address how to move a wide array of employee processes, such as performance management, onboarding and learning into a virtual space, sharply illustrating the increasing need to include HR technology input into workforce planning,” Kropp told Business Chief.
Pre-pandemic, business typically took incremental steps to rolling out digitisation programmes, according to Andrew Duncan, UK CEO at Infosys Consulting, with a phased approach over a number of years, and often held up by the involvement of too many stakeholders, lack of immediate ROI, and overcoming legacy systems and tech stacks.
“However, over 12 months into the pandemic, we have certainly seen organisations accelerate their HR digital transformation, as a necessity rather than a ‘nice-to-have’,” says Duncan, pointing in particular to the cloud, which, in an effort to maintain operations during the pandemic, has been “a winner of 2020 across all facets of business, including HR”.
And with hybrid expected to become the next working norm (Gartner projects that 48% of employees will keep working remotely at least some of the time post-pandemic) digital transformation of the HR function utilising the cloud, AI, big data, analytics and VR, is expected to accelerate. And fast.
Gartner says that around half of the organisations the firm has talked to are already investing in AI or planning to do so in the next three years. “AI has already proven it delivers against cost-saving expectations and is now evolving into more refined uses such as enhanced decision making, for example, not just by screening more CVs, but also by providing recommendations on which CVs to shortlist and why,” says Kropp.
And while there are those who argue that digitisation of the HR function will lead to loss of human touch, the opposite can in fact be true.
Using technology to support and engage people
Duncan believes that in the future we will see AI being used as an ‘intelligent co-pilot’, complementing and enhancing the existing skills of HR teams rather than replacing them.
“AI provides HR departments with an opportunity to improve the candidate and employee experience by automating repetitive, low-value tasks and freeing up time to focus on more strategic work,” says Duncan. He argues that with so many businesses looking at creating more flexible hybrid models of co-located and distributed work for the future, the focus long-term must shift from “how businesses can use technology to improve their bottom line to how can they use technology to support and engage their people”.
HR leaders should concentrate on using technology as an enabler for better employee experiences, working in the background to support greater workforce productivity and issue resolution.
For example, as a tool for augmented experiences, Duncan argues that technology can be a powerful enabler for connecting employees and teams who may not traditionally have face-to-face interaction in an office. He points to new videoconferencing platforms based on VR and AR which create stimulated environments for users from around the world to meet, communicate and interact in a more natural setting.
“Similarly, virtual connection-building tools, or internal talent marketplaces, can encourage contacts between individuals and teams, make personalised recommendations to link employees with like-minded colleagues or mentors, and support onboarding processes by connecting new hires with their team,” states Duncan.
We take a look at how digitisation of the HR function help both employees and organisations in the hybrid workplace?
Since COVID-19, more organisations are employing learning experience platforms (LEPs) to facilitate continuous education and help foster employee feedback and transparency, says Kropp. “LEPs look to deliver personalised learning paths, channels and collections that enable learners to easily organise, access and share relevant resources.”
When it comes to employee training, Duncan also points to personalisation, and mobile. “I’m particularly interested in the use of AI to both virtualise and personalise L&D initiatives, moving away from one-size-fits-all programmes and I anticipate increased development and investment in training platforms that learn your strengths, weaknesses, learning style and working preferences,” he says. “These insights can be used to automatically suggest suitable training courses and modules to match your role, as well as adapting the way your training is delivered.”
Duncan believes VR also has extensive applications for remotely upskilling employees. “Developing presentation skills can now be achieved using virtual meeting rooms, populated with realistic elements like lighting distractions and background audience noise. Solutions like these can give feedback on interpersonal elements like pace of voice, number of hesitation words and even eye-contact.”
Empowering and engaging employees
Listening to employees and the ways in which employers respond has never been more crucial, says Kropp, and this has given rise increasingly to tools like voice of the employee (VoE) solutions, which help foster employee feedback and transparency. “VoE solutions deliver insights with actionable guidance to help improve employee engagement, experience, productivity and performance,” explains Kropp. “The immediate, urgent and forced transition to remote work environments during the first half of 2020 has become an equally compelling driver of end-user demand. Organisations now want to use VoE to communicate care, listen to employee concerns, prioritise investments and quickly take action where necessary.”
Duncan says that in a hybrid workplace, without regular face-to-face meetings or the spontaneous interactions of an office setting, managers may find it harder to spot employees who are at risk for low productivity or thinking of looking elsewhere. However, “new AI-driven technologies based on workplace data offer employers the ability to identify employees who are struggling with motivation”, he says.
“Digital feedback platforms and collaboration tools make it possible to gain unprecedented insights into what matters to employees, whether via surveys, chatbots or virtual feedback groups and by engaging people in a two-way dialogue, leaders have the ability to deliver personalised experiences that support their individual goals and needs and improve the employee experience.”
Monitoring employee performance
Since the onset of the pandemic, according to Gartner, more than one out of four companies have purchased new technology, for the first time, to passively track and monitor their employees. However, says Kropp, “many of these same companies haven’t determined how to balance employee privacy with the technology, and employees are frustrated”.
Duncan asserts that all HR leaders should make it a priority to balance such monitoring technology with employee privacy, and that when implementing such tools, leaders should build trust with a governance framework around the metrics they want to use, the data they want to collect, and how they will safeguard sensitive information.
Both Duncan and Kropp predict that new regulations will emerge this year, and these will start to put limits on what employers can track about their employees.
That’s not to say that monitoring performance can’t be beneficial. “By understanding data and behaviours that most closely correlate with workplace success and failure, managers can identify team members suffering from emotional stress and fatigue and proactively intervene to address issues like poor engagement and feelings of low inclusivity,” explains Duncan. “Simultaneously, they stand to improve work processes and create personalised employee experiences that create better engagement and outcomes.”
In the end, digital transformation will not be a cure-all for anything, says Duncan, but instead a platform for leadership to build their organisations of the future, “leading from the front and engaging all of their employees in the journey ahead, to shape that future ambition”.
HR Technologies Rising
Andrew Duncan, UK CEO, Infosys Consulting, outlines the trends and technologies coming into play in the HR space.
- Chatbots These will make waves in employee experience in 2021 and beyond, solving many simple HR issues, like updating personal information. We will inevitably see a rise in voice biometrics and natural language speech recognition that improves employees’ ability to self-service, and aside from internal use, chatbots also show promise in streamlining the candidate experience, handling initial applicant screening and scheduling interviews.
- Digital Twins As we emerge from the pandemic, more organisations will turn to digital twins to better prepare for unexpected shocks and to build an intelligent and resilient employee ecosystem. A digital twin with layers of workplace insights provides a shared picture for key leadership, letting HR leaders experiment with a number of key variables, testing different scenarios and contingencies across space management, employee utilisation and facilities. With a digital twin, HR can also pair staffing forecasts with real estate costs and uncover innovative ways to maximise operational expenses.
- Health Tech Employee happiness is now a corporate responsibility, and one with a significant impact on productivity. The pandemic has shone a light on the vital role employees play in business success, and talent is more confident in expressing their needs to employers. Consequently, we will see the concept of Health Tech making its way into HR, supporting and monitoring physical fitness and the emotional and mental health of employees, from virtual meditation classes to AI-powered therapists.
- Smart Building IoT Devices As we look to reassess our real estate portfolios for a post-pandemic future, including how much and where space is required, there will inevitably be increased investments in smart building IoT devices and platforms that focus on collecting real-time data. By taking a forensic approach to data capture across multiple sensors and sources, HR teams can measure how buildings are being utilised, including metrics like meeting room productivity and occupancy, and with these actionable insights, will be better able to use, optimise and prioritise building spaces while maintaining a safe and engaging environment for employees.