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Ready for future of work?

Dell recently teamed up with the Institute for the Future to project into the next decades, and predict how emerging technologies like AI the IoT will reshape how we live and work by 2030. CHRIS BUCHANAN, Client Solutions Director Dell EMC South Africa, gives some insight into data collected from South Africa.

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Futurists have long envisioned a brighter tomorrow, full of A.I. helpers and automated environments that run on the sound of our voice. Now that we stand on the edge of that reality, it’s time to realize what it requires of us to make this new world work. With immense possibilities on the horizon comes expanding responsibility. Businesses need to act now to transform their IT, workforce and security to stay ahead of the curve.

Recently, Dell Technologies teamed up with Institute for the Future to project into the next decades, and predict how emerging technologies – such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Internet of Things (IoT) – will reshape how we live and work by 2030. With those insights, we extended IFTF’s forecasts and surveyed 3,800 business leaders from around the world to gauge their predictions and preparedness for the future.

What companies will need

It is clear that companies need to change in order to reap the benefits of this new era. Many already are. According to the survey, more than half of the businesses interviewed will be investing in advanced AI and self-learning technologies. Converged infrastructure, which greatly reduces the burden on back-office systems, is attracting nearly as much attention, as are the emerging worlds of augmented and virtual reality.

Three other areas that attract the attention of most businesses are next-generation apps, ultra high-performance compute technologies such as all-flash, and new capabilities to accelerate applications. The business of the future is looking for increased performance, be it for insight, training or business applications. But don’t think this is a technology revolution…

What they need from people

In South Africa, there is great concern about the impact of automation on our employment situation. This is an uncomfortable reality that cannot be ignored. In such a light it may seem the above revelations are not good for people. But it’s quite the opposite: this is a people revolution and, if we address it correctly, it can help all humans.

Even our survey respondents don’t regard technology as leading the change. For example, despite all the talk of remote conferencing, 67 percent feel that face to face interaction will remain very important. Humans are overwhelmingly the secret ingredient to success: today’s businesses still value creative drive and logic as the most valued employee skills, something that remains unchanged even when looking at the future year of 2030.

But some things are changing. There will be a higher emphasis on emotional intelligence and technology literacy, finding space alongside traditional business skills such as project management and complex decision-making.

It is clear that the future depends on empowering people through technology.

Human-machine Partnerships

Automation is a fact: a whopping 96 percent of respondents believe it will happen. Nor does it make sense to avoid. But instead of wondering about what jobs could be lost, we should explore the opportunities technologies bring to current and new roles. If done right, there will be work for everyone.

But then we must consider where the work won’t be. In business, the areas of inventory management, invoicing, troubleshooting, logistics and administration are considered prime candidates for automation. These are where jobs will disappear as new technologies take root.

The human edge will come from partnerships with machines. Humans and machines will work together as integrated teams – 26 percent already do and 30 percent expect it in two years. Take that view to five years and 82 percent of polled businesses expect to have human-machine integrated teams.

But business leaders are torn by what this means for their roles, their businesses and the world at large. 50 percent think automated systems will free up their time, while 42 percent believe they’ll have more job satisfaction in the future by offloading the tasks they don’t want to do to machines.

Supporting Your Workforce

Success will be determined by how a workforce is supported and initiated into this new world. Here there are still challenges, considering that 38 percent of companies struggle to change their workforce’s mindset and culture. More alarming is that 61 percent say their workforces are not ready yet, a number only slightly lower than businesses that lack a digital strategy. This suggests that companies are not strategically prepared for digital changes, so it’s no surprise they aren’t able to change gears on their cultures.

But there are some winning strategies. Of the companies that reported progress in their digital transformations, 53 percent have put policies and technologies in place to support a fully remote, flexible workforce, while 60 percent make customer journeys a boardroom concern. Other successful strategies include tasking senior leaders with spearheading digital change and aligning compensation, training and KPIs to a company’s digital goals and strategy.

Education and training are also major ingredients for success – and something that many employees seek to pursue on their own volition. Creating such opportunities is invaluable. Instead of forcing employees to upskill, give them the means to do so and they will. At least 54 percent of successful digital transformations involve teaching employees coding and software development. In today’s drag-and-drop/low code environments this is important, since even non-technical employees have the capacity to make meaningful changes to systems.

This is an interesting time for business: four separate generations are currently part of the employable population and they all should be brought along on the digital revolution. These employees, regardless of age, seem to thrive most when they are provided training in digital ways of working (54%) and equipped with the latest personal technology tools (54%).

A future with AI systems and automation is not a threat to workers, not if companies invest in training and facilitating them, as well as provide the right digital tools for their jobs. This can’t be divorced from a company’s need to digitally transform – and it is imperative if organisations expect to remain competitive. So as we prepare for the future of work, we must remember that the change begins not with technology or processes, but with our people.

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Online retail gets real

After decades of experience in selling online, retailers still seek out the secret of reaching the digital consumer, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

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It’s been 23 years since the first pizza and the first bunch of flowers was sold online. One would think, after all this time, that retailers would know exactly what works, and exactly how the digital consumer thinks.

Yet, in shopping-mad South Africa, only 4% of adults regularly shop online. One could blame high data costs, low levels of tech-savviness, or lack of trust. However, that doesn’t explain why a population where more than a quarter of people have a debit or credit card and almost 40% of people use the Internet is staying away.

The new Online Retail in South Africa 2019 study, conducted by World Wide Worx with the support of Visa and Platinum Seed, reveals that growth is in fact healthy, but is still coming off a low base. This year, the total sale of retail products online is expected to pass the R14-billion mark, making up 1.4% of total retail.

This figure represents 25% growth over 2017, and comes after the same rate of growth was seen in 2017. At this rate, it is clear that online retail is going mainstream, driven by aggressive marketing, and new shopping channels like mobile shopping. 

But it is equally clear that not all retailers are getting it right. According to the study, the unwillingness of business to reinvest revenue in developing their online presence is one of the main barriers to long-term success. Only one in five companies surveyed invested more than 20% of their online turnover back into their online store. Over half invested less than 10% back.

On the surface, the industry looks healthy, as a surprisingly high 71% of online retailers surveyed say they are profitable. But this brings to mind the early days of Amazon.com, in 1996, when founder Jeff Bezos was asked when it would become profitable.

He declared that it would not be profitable for at least another five years. And if it did, he said, it would be in big trouble. He meant that it was so important for long-term sustainability that Amazon reinvest all its revenues in customer systems, that it could not afford to look for short-term profits.

According to the South African study, the single most critical factor in the success of online retail activities is customer service. A vast majority, 98% of respondents, regarded it as important. This positions customer service as the very heart of online retail. For Amazon, investment back into systems that would streamline customer service became the key to the world’s digital wallets.

In South Africa online still make up a small proportion of overall retail, but for the first time we see the promise of a broader range of businesses in terms of category, size, turnover and employee numbers. This is a sign that our local market is beginning to mature. 

Clothing and apparel is the fastest growing sector, but is also the sector with the highest turnover of businesses. It illustrates the dangers of a low barrier to entry: the survival rate of online stores in this sector is probably directly opposite to the ease of setting up an online apparel store.

A fast-growing category that was fairly low on the agenda in the past, alcohol, tobacco and vaping, has benefited from the increased online supply of vapes, juices and accessories. It also suggests that smoking bans, and the change in the legal status of marijuana during the survey, may have boosted demand. 

In the coming weeks, we can expect online retail to fall under the spotlight as never before. Black Friday, a shopping tradition imported “wholesale” from the United States, is expected to become the biggest online shopping day of the year in South Africa, as it is in the USA.

Initially, it was just a gimmick in South Africa, attempting to cash in on what was a purely American tradition of insane sales on the Friday after Thanksgiving Day, which occurs on the third Thursday of November every year. It is followed by Cyber Monday, making the entire weekend one of major promotions and great bargains.

It has grown every year in South Africa since its first introduction about six years ago, and last year it broke into the mainstream, with numerous high profile retailers embracing it, and many consumers experiencing it for the first time. 

It is now positioned as the prime bargain day of the year for consumers, and many wait in anticipation for it, as they do in the USA. Along with Cyber Monday, it provides an excuse for retailers to go all out in their marketing, and for consumers to storm the display shelves or web pages. South African shoppers, clearly, are easily enticed by bargains.

Word of mouth around Black Friday has also grown massively in the past two years, driven by both media and shoppers who have found ridiculous bargains. As news spreads that the most ridiculous of the bargains are to be had online, even those who were reticent of digital shopping will be tempted to convert.

The Online Retail in SA 2019 report has shown over the years that, as people become more experienced in using the Internet, their propensity to shop online increases. This is part of the World Wide Worx model known as the Digital Participation Curve. The key missing factor in the Curve is that most retailers do not know how to convert that propensity into actual online shopping behaviour. Black Friday will be one of the keys to conversion.

Carry on reading to find out about the online retailers of the year.

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Reliable satellite Internet?

MzansiSat, a satellite-Internet business, aims to beam Internet connections to places in South Africa which don’t have access to cabled and mobile network infrastructure, writes BRYAN TURNER.

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Stellenbosch-based MzansiSat promises to provide cheap wholesale Internet to Internet Service Providers for as little as R25 per Gigabyte. Providers who offer more expensive Internet services could benefit greatly from partnering with MzansiSat, says the company. 

“Using MzansiSat, we hope that we can carry over cost-savings benefits to the consumer,” says Victor Stephanopoli, MzansiSat chief operating officer.

The company, which has been spun off from StellSat, has been looking to increase its investor portfolio while it waits for spectrum approval. The additional investment will allow MzansiSat’s satellite to operate in more regions across Africa.

The MzansiSat satellite is being built by Thales Alenia Space, a French company which is also acting as technical partner to MzansiSat. In addition to building the satellite, Thales Alenia Space will also be assisting MzansiSat in coordinating the launch. The company intends to launch the satellite into the 56°E orbital slot in a geostationary orbit, which enables communication almost anywhere in Africa. The launch is expected to happen in 2022. 

The satellite will have 76 transponders, 48 of which will be Ku-band and 28 C-band. Ku-band is all about high-speed performance, while C-band deals with weather-resistance. The design intention is for customers of MzansiSat to choose between very cheap, reliable data and very fast, power-efficient data. 

C-band is an older technology, which makes bandwidth cheaper and almost never affected by rain but requires bigger dishes and slower bandwidth compared to Ku-band connections. On the other hand, Ku-band is faster, experiences less microwave interference, and requires less power to run – but is less reliable with bad weather conditions.

MzansiSat’s potential military applications are significant, due to the nature of the military being mobile and possibly in remote areas without connectivity.  Connectivity everywhere would be potentially be life-saving.

Consumers in remote areas will benefit, even though satellite is higher in latency than fibre and LTE connections. While this level of latency is high (a fifth of a second in theory), satellite connections are still adequate for browsing the Internet and watching online content. 

The Internet of Things (IoT) may see the benefits of satellite Internet before consumers do. The applications of IoT in agriculture are vast, from hydration sensors to soil nutrient testers, and can be realised with an Internet connection which is available in a remote area.

Stephanopoli says that e-learning in remote areas can also benefit from MzansiSat’s presence, as many school resources are becoming readily available online. 

“Through our network, the learning experience can be beamed into classrooms across the country to substitute or complement local resources within the South African schooling system.”

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