Some of these fads were slowly building in the previous decade, others are still nascent, but need your full attention to prepare your business for the times ahead.
1. AI and machine learning
Key takeaway: Automate repetitive tasks, but be wary of automating inefficiencies and biases.
You’re surrounded by artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning: from the recommendations Netflix makes based on your viewing history to those pesky adverts that track you around the internet. As Bronwyn Williams, a trend analyst at Flux Trends in South Africa, explains, “Most of what you think is AI is actually machine learning.” Williams emphasizes that fears about AI “stealing jobs” are overrated, and most businesses will see the arduous, repetitive tasks given to machines, freeing up humans for analysis and critical thinking. She warns businesses to remember it’s the human interaction that differentiates one offering from another. “Don’t automate away your value. Look under the hood and make sure you understand why you are automating something – and be careful not to automate inefficiencies.” Looking at automated HR processes, companies have discovered that even unconscious human biases are learned by machines (for example, CVs belonging to certain genders and races are discredited. Machines are not born neutral – especially if they’re learning from humans.) Embrace machine learning, but do so with a pinch of salt.
2. Driverless cars and the supply chain
Key takeaway: Autonomous cars are still about 15 years away, but it’s best to prepare your fleet and supply chain choice now.
The automotive industry is going through some major changes: electric cars, the growth of services like Uber and Lift, and lastly, the development of autonomous vehicles. Though the first two will impact everyday consumer experiences, it’s self-driving cars that will massively alter businesses and their supply chains across Africa in the next decade. “As convenience and efficiency are the cornerstones of the fleet industry, there is no doubt self-driving vehicles will start making a play for their share of the fleet industry sooner rather than later,” explains Sudesh Pillay on fleet management company EQSTRA’s online platform. The supply chain will no longer be affected by driver fatigue and human error. Driverless cars will also dramatically impact accident rates (lowering them by 90%, according to some estimates) and supply chain efficiency. As Innovation Group’s Future Now report indicates, autonomous cars face some serious challenges across Africa before they can become a practical alternative to human drivers. “There is a vision, in the not-too-distant future, in which self-driving cars hold a lot of promise…. Others are more skeptical about the practical feasibility, especially in Africa where the infrastructural limitations (roads, electricity etc.) hold back the vision, at least in the foreseeable future. Our research indicates that self-driving cars may only become a reality in South Africa in  or more years and that this may spur innovative advances in infrastructure, energy services and ultimately the look and feel of roads and cities.”
3. Climate crises and
Key takeaway: Hire a Chief Sustainability Officer to
start building climate resilience into your business.
“Now is the time to start thinking seriously about resilience,” says Hugh Tyrrell, Director at Green Edge, a corporate mentoring initiative in Cape Town that helps businesses develop sustainably. “The big brands have Chief Sustainability Officers (CSO). This role is in the C-suite and is forward-thinking,” Tyrell explains. CSOs look at how businesses can start developing their own power, lower their eco-footprint and manage their resources better. Looking to the big corporate trendsetters, there are some major shifts in corporate strategy focusing on a sustainable business model instead of growth at all costs. Unilever, for example, is holding their suppliers to the same eco-friendly standards that they themselves are working at, says Tyrrell. Natural disasters associated with the climate crisis are already affecting African businesses too. Explains Tyrrell, “In agriculture, which is a big sector in Africa, we are seeing the effect of droughts or floods. Others have to work more closely with their suppliers to ensure supplies come in good condition and on time.” Mining is another industry heavily impacted by the climate crisis – and the push by consumers for more environmental-friendly solutions.
4. The age of cyberattacks and data breaches
Key takeaway: Make sure your IT department includes
skilled data protection specialists.
As businesses innovate and rely less on physical hardware like servers, and start instead relying on the cloud, they can expect to see a massive uptick in cyberattacks and subsequent data breaches. This trend increased exponentially in 2019 (even the City of Johannesburg in South Africa was held by ransomware) and is set to explode in the coming decade. Added to this, businesses are collecting more data than ever before, particularly for marketing purposes and to tailor their product offerings. Because of this, businesses should prepare themselves for the onslaught by firstly, taking their online security very seriously, secondly, training their staff (employees are the weakest link in any security chain) and thirdly, putting more budget behind appropriate security measures. “The demand for narrow cybersecurity expertise is driven by a constantly changing threat landscape, as well as evolving technologies, such as cloud or IoT. As a result, we see the bigger demand in, for example, threat intelligence analysts and dedicated threat intelligence services, and experts for cloud platform protection. The call for data protection specialists is seen in both technical and regulatory and compliance aspects,” says Alexander Moiseev, Chief Business Officer at online security software Kaspersky.
5. The remote workforce
Key takeaway: Flexi-hours and working remotely are practical ways to combat challenges like loadshedding and traffic.
With intermittent power supply (particularly in South Africa), increasing traffic and less reliance on physical IT infrastructure like servers, the remote and flexible workforce is becoming a norm. Says Moiseev, “The working model is already being changed, with 40% of small and medium companies regularly allowing their employees to work at locations outside the office — from home or while traveling.” In addition, health scares like the coronavirus are amplifying these trends. “Apps that enable remote working are having a moment,” explains Williams. “You now get filters to add makeup to video conferences so you don’t have to dress up when you’re working from home.” Many employees expect the flexibility of remote working when job hunting, and businesses reap the benefits of agility.