It’S One Minute Until ‘Digital Midnight’ But These Three Things Can Turn The Clocks Back

November 11th, 2022
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This time of year much of the Northern Hemisphere adjusts their clocks back to accommodate fewer hours of daylight and it’s a great pity that we can’t do the same in South Africa with our ticking digital time bomb. The reality is that we have one minute until a proverbial digital midnight – and once we hit that mark, the lights will go out on South Africa’s hopes and plans for inclusive economic growth.

The world as we know it is changing faster than ever in this fourth industrial revolution, and what happens now will shape everyone’s futures. In our work across the public and private sector we are already seeing casualties and beneficiaries of a digital economy that is blazing its own trail. The casualties are those people, organisations and countries that freeze and don’t adapt; or those that do adapt but can’t do so fast enough. Using old tools to solve new problems is a fool’s errand. The beneficiaries of course are those who see change as opportunity, and seize it to forge new markets, create new customers and products, deftly cut new pathways and develop surprising ways to do things as they create value in the ecosystem.

This phenomenon is nothing new. The digital economy was born in the 1980s when the first personal computers were introduced. It can be explained simply as the economic activity that results from billions of daily exchanges between people, businesses, data, devices and processes. We’ve had four decades to digest these exchanges and their infinite potential so you’d be forgiven for thinking that we’re all on the way to being beneficiaries.

But in our work across the public and private sector, one key trend has emerged. Both businesses and people are frantically trying to transform to become digital by default, but all at entirely different speeds. Businesses are moving to evolve quickly – they are constantly approached with innovative tech and solutions to re-platform, modernize and leap ahead of their competitors, so it’s much easier to keep moving. But the people within those businesses are struggling to keep pace and change at the same rate.

It’s self-evident that business and the wider economy cannot transform when its people are left behind. South Africa’s digital economic transformation will only be sustainable if people-led growth is developed with the right mindsets, reframed knowledge, new skills, bolder competencies, and an ability to look at the world through new lenses.

The good news is that there are three things that business can do to master their new reality, and find ways to bend it to their will to create new customer, business and employee value.

First are businesses that are late to evolve, and who have begrudgingly come to accept that they need to accelerate their shift to become an organisation that is digital by default. These are often highly successful businesses, but are quickly fading towards irrelevance – think of Kodak in the 1980s – one of the early casualties of the digital revolution. These businesses need to immediately focus on upskilling and building the digital operational confidence of their people. The right mindset and attitude to embrace the new will be crucial in the team’s endeavours to leap out of the digital black hole they are in.

Second are those businesses who have started digitally innovating and consider themselves to be digitally transformed or at least transforming. These businesses find themselves in a catch 22 – they have invested in the ‘right’ hardware, have often spent millions on training and systems development, but aren’t getting the promised results. These businesses, which make up the bulk of our economy, should use the strategic data that their digital tools provide them with to refine and simplify what they do, how they do it, and who they do it for. That way they can both benefit from existing investment and experience, and use it to purposefully pursue a defined goal.

Third are the rare entities that intuitively understand the paradigm-shifting potential that a thriving digital economy offers for real and virtual goods and services. Defined by an insatiable quest to activate the new, these businesses will reap huge rewards by extending the same trust and confidence in its people to anticipate problems that don’t yet exist – and pre-empt solutions for a customer base still incubating.

Of course it can never be up to the private sector alone to transform our economy. That is why it’s heartening to hear announcements from Treasury about procurement rules and shorter payment terms for small businesses that are more fit for purpose: the purpose of inclusive growth and shared prosperity.

What South Africa also needs is encouragement from government to establish and grow digitally-focused businesses and tools, from skills development to hardware production to unique digital personal identification to even safer online payment systems. This can be done through favourable tax rates and rebates, a commitment to cut red tape for these entities specifically, and enabling confidence in government decision-makers to responsibly assess and act on their own departments’ digital responsiveness.

Together, we can turn back the clock on South Africa’s digital readiness. But we need to act fast before we’re left behind the rest of the world in an isolated digital darkness.

Authors: Adam Craker, CEO at IQbusiness
Get in touch with Adam on LinkedIn here.

Naeem Seedat, Managing Partner at IQbusiness.
Get in touch with Naeem on LinkedIn here.

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