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Prepare for platform economy

Many companies have already taken steps to embed themselves into digital ecosystems. But, the pace of adopting new digital platforms for doing business needs to increase – especially in Africa, says WILLIAM MZIMBA, Chief Executive of Accenture South Africa.

These platforms are business models that create value by facilitating exchanges between two or more interdependent groups, usually consumers and producers.

According to the Wall Street Journal platform companies are major drivers of innovation as the top companies set the standards for the digital transformation taking place around the world. Traditional companies are challenged to keep up or risk being left behind. As platforms become the new normal for how business is done, African companies must seize this opportunity to begin to build a new digital value chain.

Already, more than a quarter (27%) of the executives Accenture recently surveyed report that digital ecosystems are transforming the way their organizations deliver value. And we found that 81% of executives say platform-based business models will be core to their growth strategy within three years. The mandate for leaders is to capitalize on new relationships, building a network of digital partners that will not only enhance their existing business, but also allow them to forge their way into newly emerging digital ecosystems.

What we are seeing is that entire ecosystems of customers are aggregating around several new digital platforms, and businesses are more motivated than ever before to take advantage of these entry points. Communication platforms like WeChat and WhatsApp, and Artificial Intelligence intermediaries like the Google Assistant, Alexa, and Siri represent distinct ecosystems delivering unprecedented access to customers – and businesses are flocking to them.

A couple of examples include Hyatt Hotels, which uses Facebook Messenger to let guests do everything from booking and checking existing reservations to ordering room service during a stay, while Capital One bank developed a ‘skill’ for Amazon Echo’s Alexa, allowing people to check their accounts and pay credit card bills via the Echo device.

It is little surprise that the trend two of our Tech Vision 2017 study highlights that in the State of the Cloud survey 95% of respondents reported using public, private, or hybrid cloud technology, while the CIO Strategic Partner Index run by the IDC reports that 29% of IT leaders are spending more than half their IT budget on external providers. Each platform commitment means easier future engagement with other companies on the platform using the same infrastructure.

However, of the 176 platform companies included in a recent report, The Rise of the Platform Enterprise: A Global Survey led by Peter Evans and Annabelle Gawer and sponsored by the Center for Global Enterprise, Asia has the largest number with 82, 64 of which are in China. North America has 64, with 63 in the US. Europe is a major consumer of platform services, but its home to relatively few platform companies –27 spread across 10 countries, 9 of which are in the UK. It is concerning Africa and Latin America have a number of small platform companies, only 3 of which have met the $1 billion valuation threshold for inclusion in the survey.

More African companies need to decide which ecosystems to join and which roles to play as the technology changes are only the beginning.

How do African companies begin to close the gaps? An important way to get moving on this journey is to conduct an audit identifying how many internal and external platforms you are using and the goals for their use. Identify and address unnecessary overlaps. Determine the platforms your organization most relies on, as well as those that most depend on you.

These are the ecosystems where your organization should hold its strategic and market strengths. Over the next 100 days, look to essentially develop a comprehensive strategy to establish the foundation for your platform business model and ecosystem. During this phase you should appoint a C-suite sponsor to oversee a team that is responsible for championing your new ecosystem and digital partnership strategies. Then over the next year, leadership should have achieved comprehensive understanding of the new rules of business, developed a platform business model strategy, and started to test it with the launch of a small pilot program.

Companies should keep expanding the conversation: for instance, in the first 100 days have a strategy summit with your closest partners to understand their goals for the future. Uncover shared goals and commit to developing a strategic plan for achieving them together.

Consider your organization’s future through the lens of the biggest disruptions shaping your market, from inside and outside your industry. Craft the ideal role of your company in this future, and develop a shortlist of partners who can help make it a reality. And remember to develop metrics to quantify the results of ecosystem participation.

Many global brands are already taking the bold steps needed. The digital ecosystem is, for instance, totally redefining what automakers do. Rather than just building cars, they’re engaging with customers throughout the vehicle lifecycle, directly managing software upgrades, diagnostics, and safety. In the insurance industry, pulling down driving data from connected car platforms has enabled new services such as pay-per-mile insurance with newcomers like Google and Metromile to challenge the industry status quo. The opportunities are endless, no matter what industry you are in.

General Motors kicked off 2016 with a $500 million investment into ride-share platform Lyft. The move gave GM the inroads to launch their Express Drive service, an exclusive offering for successful, but car-less, Lyft driver applicants to rent a car directly from GM and get to work right away. The program was remarkably successful in the short term, opening a new line of business for GM: by July, 30% of new Lyft drivers were requesting an Express Drive vehicle in their sign-up. In addition to partnering with Lyft, GM also made a $1 billion-plus acquisition of the autonomous vehicle software company Cruise Automation, and another billion-dollar investment in building an autonomous vehicle testing facility in Detroit.

This shows how platforms are rapidly becoming the central hubs for the rich and complex digital ecosystems that companies want to access. Consider the fact that 70% of ’unicorn’ startups (over $1 billion) are platform companies. Other companies such as personal car-rental app Turo and group dining experience Feastly have introduced their own offerings, as have dozens of start-ups, each with their own angle and offering. LiquidSpace, which lists offerings in more than 500 cities across the US, Australia and Canada, offers a platform for renting workspaces and meeting rooms by the day or hour.

In South Africa, a good example of a company embracing the platform economy and reaping rewards is Discovery Vitality, while Discovery’s proposed bank is another example of the evolution of this concept into other exciting sectors. The retail market for consumer goods in SA received a shot in the arm in 2015 when Kalahari was merged with Takealot, with the technology platform cleverly harnessed to drive growth since then.

Remember the sharing economy brings people together through technology to exchange or rent access to goods and services, so entrepreneurs are building this economy by leveraging emerging digital technologies to meet customer needs in new and disruptive ways.

Digital and mobile technologies have combined with public support to create a host of opportunities to transform the way government manages the infrastructure it has already acquired. For instance, through MuniRent, six local governments in Michigan are already renting equipment to and from each other.

How African companies and governments react to this change brought about the platform economy will define their prospects going forward. The platforms they use will serve as the pathways to the new digital economies that will drive growth and jobs across the continent. They will form the pillars of entire value chains in the future and so African companies need to ensure they make these decisions wisely – and fast because there is no doubt that the digital partnerships African companies make today will determine how successful they will be tomorrow.

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Now IBM’s Watson joins IoT revolution in agriculture

Global expansion of the Watson Decision Platform taps into AI, weather and IoT data to boost production

IBM has announced the global expansion of Watson Decision Platform for Agriculture, with AI technology tailored for new crops and specific regions to help feed a growing population. For the first time, IBM is providing a global agriculture solution that combines predictive technology with data from The Weather Company, an IBM Business, and IoT data to help give farmers around the world greater insights about planning, ploughing, planting, spraying and harvesting.

By 2050, the world will need to feed two billion more people without an increase in arable land [1]. IBM is combining power weather data – including historical, current and forecast data and weather prediction models from The Weather Company – with crop models to help improve yield forecast accuracy, generate value, and increase both farm production and profitability.

Roric Paulman, owner/operator of Paulman Farms in Southwest Nebraska, said: “As a farmer, the wild card is always weather. IBM overlays weather details with my own data and historical information to help me apply, verify, and make decisions. For example, our farm is in a highly restricted water basin, so the ability to better anticipate rain not only saves me money but also helps me save precious natural resources.”

New crop models include corn, wheat, soy, cotton, sorghum, barley, sugar cane and potato, with more coming soon. These models will now be available in the Africa, U.S. Canada, Mexico, and Brazil, as well as new markets across Europe and Australia.

Kristen Lauria, general manager of Watson Media and Weather Solutions at IBM, said: “These days farmers don’t just farm food, they also cultivate data – from drones flying over fields to smart irrigation systems, and IoT sensors affixed to combines, seeders, sprayers and other equipment. Most of the time, this data is left on the vine — never analysed or used to derive insights. Watson Decision Platform for Agriculture aims to change that by offering tools and solutions to help growers make more informed decisions about their crops.” 

The average farm generates an estimated 500,000 data points per day, which will grow to 4 million data points by 2036 [2]. Applying AI and analysis to aggregated field, machine and environmental data can help improve shared insights between growers and enterprises across the agriculture ecosystem. With a better view of the fields, growers can see what’s working on certain farms and share best practices with other farmers. The platform assesses data in an electronic field record to identify and communicate crop management patterns and insights. Enterprise businesses such as food companies, grain processors, or produce distributors can then work with farmers to leverage those insights. It helps track crop yield as well as the environmental, weather and plant biologic conditions that go into a good or bad yield, such as irrigation management, pest and disease risk analysis and cohort analysis for comparing similar subsets of fields.

The result isn’t just more productive farmers. Watson Decision Platform for Agriculture could help a livestock company eliminate a certain mold or fungus from feed supply grains or help identify the best crop irrigation practices for farmers to use in drought-stricken areas like California. It could help deliver the perfect French fry for a fast food chain that needs longer – not fatter – potatoes from its network of growers. Or it could help a beer distributor produce a more affordable premium beer by growing higher quality barley that meets the standard required to become malting barley.

Watson Decision Platform for Agriculture is built on IBM PAIRS Geoscope from IBM Research, which quickly processes massive, complex geospatial and time-based datasets collected by satellites, drones, aerial flights, millions of IoT sensors and weather models. It crunches large, complex data and creates insights quickly and easily so farmers and food companies can focus on growing crops for global communities.

IBM and The Weather Company help the agriculture industry find value in weather insights. IBM Research collaborates with start up Hello Tractor to integrate The Weather Company data, remote sensing data (e.g., satellite), and IoT data from tractors. IBM also works with crop nutrition leader Yara to include hyperlocal weather forecasts in its digital platform for real-time recommendations, tailored to specific fields or crops. IBM acquired The Weather Company in 2016 and has since been helping clients better understand and mitigate the cost of weather on their businesses. The global expansion of Watson Decision Platform for Agriculture is the latest innovation in IBM’s efforts to make weather a more predictable business consideration. Also just announced, Weather Signals is a new AI-based tool that merges The Weather Company data with a company’s own operations data to reveal how minor fluctuations in weather affects business.

The combination of rich weather forecast data from The Weather Company and IBM’s AI and Cloud technologies is designed to provide a unique capability, which is being leveraged by agriculture, energy and utility companies, airlines, retailers and many others to make informed business decisions.

[1] The UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, “World Population Prospects: The 2017 Revision”

[2] Business Insider Intelligence, 2016 report: https://www.businessinsider.com/internet-of-things-smart-agriculture-2016-10


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What if Amazon used AI to take on factories?

By ANTONY BOURNE, IFS Global Industry Director for Manufacturing

Amazon recently announced record profits of $3.03bn, breaking its own record for the third consecutive time. However, Amazon appears to be at a crossroads as to where it heads next. Beyond pouring additional energy into Amazon Prime, many have wondered whether the company may decide to enter an entirely new sector such as manufacturing to drive future growth, after all, it seems a logical step for the company with its finger in so many pies.

At this point, it is unclear whether Amazon would truly ‘get its hands dirty’ by manufacturing its own products on a grand scale. But what if it did? It’s worth exploring this reality. What if Amazon did decide to move into manufacturing, a sector dominated by traditional firms and one that is yet to see an explosive tech rival enter? After all, many similarly positioned tech giants have stuck to providing data analytics services or consulting to these firms rather than genuinely engaging with and analysing manufacturing techniques directly.

If Amazon did factories

If Amazon decided to take a step into manufacturing, it is likely that they could use the Echo range as a template of what AI can achieve. In recent years,Amazon gained expertise on the way to designing its Echo home speaker range that features Alexa, an artificial intelligence and IoT-based digital assistant.Amazon could replicate a similar form with the deployment of AI and Industrial IoT (IIoT) to create an autonomously-run smart manufacturing plant. Such a plant could feature IIoT sensors to enable the machinery to be run remotely and self-aware; managing external inputs and outputs such as supply deliveries and the shipping of finished goods. Just-in-time logistics would remove the need for warehousing while other machines could be placed in charge of maintenance using AI and remote access. Through this, Amazon could radically reduce the need for human labour and interaction in manufacturing as the use of AI, IIoT and data analytics will leave only the human role for monitoring and strategic evaluation. Amazon has been using autonomous robots in their logistics and distribution centres since 2017. As demonstrated with the Echo range, this technology is available now, with the full capabilities of Blockchain and 5G soon to be realised and allowing an exponentially-increased amount of data to be received, processed and communicated.

Manufacturing with knowledge

Theorising what Amazon’s manufacturing debut would look like provides a stark learning opportunity for traditional manufacturers. After all, wheneverAmazon has entered the fray in other traditional industries such as retail and logistics, the sector has never remained the same again. The key takeaway for manufacturers is that now is the time to start leveraging the sort of technologies and approaches to data management that Amazon is already doing in its current operations. When thinking about how to implement AI and new technologies in existing environments, specific end-business goals and targets must be considered, or else the end result will fail to live up to the most optimistic of expectations. As with any target and goal, the more targeted your objectives, the more competitive and transformative your results. Once specific targets and deliverables have been considered, the resources and methods of implementation must also be considered. As Amazon did with early automation of their distribution and logistics centres, manufacturers need to implement change gradually and be focused on achieving small and incremental results that will generate wider momentum and the appetite to lead more expansive changes.

In implementing newer technologies, manufacturers need to bear in mind two fundamental aspects of implementation: software and hardware solutions. Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software, which is increasingly bolstered by AI, will enable manufacturers to leverage the data from connected IoT devices, sensors, and automated systems from the factory floor and the wider business. ERP software will be the key to making strategic decisions and executing routine operational tasks more efficiently. This will allow manufacturers to keep on top of trends and deliver real-time forecasting and spot any potential problems before they impact the wider business.

As for the hardware, stock management drones and sensor-embedded hardware will be the eyes through which manufacturers view the impact emerging technologies bring to their operations. Unlike manual stock audits and counting, drones with AI capabilities can monitor stock intelligently around production so that operations are not disrupted or halted. Manufacturers will be able to see what is working, what is going wrong, and where there is potential for further improvement and change.

Knowledge for manufacturing

For many traditional manufacturers, they may see Amazon as a looming threat, and smart-factory technologies such as AI and Robotic Process Automation (RPA) as a far off utopia. However, 2019 presents a perfect opportunity for manufacturers themselves to really determine how the tech giants and emerging technologies will affect the industry. Technologies such as AI and IoT are available today; and the full benefits of these technologies will only deepen as they are implemented alongside the maturing of other emerging technologies such as 5G and Blockchain in the next 3-5 years. Manufacturers need to analyse the needs which these technologies can address and produce a proper plan on how to gradually implement these technologies to address specific targets and deliverables. AI-based software and hardware solutions will fundamentally revolutionise manufacturing, yet for 2019, manufacturers just have to be willing to make the first steps in modernisation.

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