What IT leaders want to achieve in 2021

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To say 2020 has been a challenging year for IT executives and teams would be a bit of an understatement.

There's been the massive and sudden shift to a work-from-home model that comes with all sorts of security, privacy, connectivity, collaboration, and other infrastructure issues. IT staffers have had to learn to support this enormous remote workforce, in many cases while working remotely themselves.

On top of these challenges, many companies—especially retailers—have shifted more toward online or e-commerce models to replace in-person transactions. That's meant quickly putting together the platforms and web tools needed to excel online.

Aside from these and other pandemic-related shifts, IT has had to deal with all the day-to-day hurdles that have always been there, such as keeping systems running smoothly and keeping equipment up to date.

All of this has not discouraged CIOs and other IT leaders from looking ahead toward 2021 and setting ambitious goals for the year.

Here are some top goals for the coming year.

Leverage machine learning to automate processes

Like many businesses, beverage bottling company G&J Pepsi is looking for ways to automate more processes. To that end, the company plans to deploy Microsoft's Azure Machine Learning (ML) service, which provides a data science platform that supports both code-first and low-code projects, to support multiple applications.

"We are in process of developing an auto-generated order to simplify the work of our frontline team," says Brian Balzer, vice president of digital technology and business transformation at G&J Pepsi.

With existing processes, employees have to manually manage order writing for more than 250 different stock keeping units (SKUs) of products that sit on the shelves at grocery stores. "This is a very tedious process and subject to variability due to the manual nature of the work," Balzer says.

Using past sales and purchasing data, advertising information, weather information, etc., the company is developing an Azure ML algorithm to build a predictive order to eliminate the manual effort by employees, so they can focus more time on meeting with customers, selling, and adding value.

"This is a significant change in business process and technology that could open doors across the company, while significantly changing how we service our customers more effectively," Balzer says.

The company is also looking to use the same technology to optimize the cooler sets in small format stores such as convenience stores. "We would pipe data through Azure ML algorithms that would deliver an optimized projected set of products that are [the] best selling and highest revenue generating products to bring value to our customers and to G&J Pepsi," Balzer says.

This planogram, or visual representation of products or services, would then be shared with G&J Pepsi's sales team and the customer so that it can be maintained properly throughout the year, providing optimum benefit to the customer.

The company will also use machine learning to deliver a projected yearly forecast of sales for every product, by customer, for every segment of the business. "This would allow us to more accurately address sales activities, ads, operational demands, etc., so that we can better prepare how to support our customers and deliver value to the shareholders," Balzer says.

G&J Pepsi has nearly 13,000 customers with more than 400 products. "Forecasting potential sales of every product we sell for every customer we deliver to is a monumental task, and it's not possible through manual efforts," Balzer says. "By leveraging ML capabilities in our toolsets, we are automating this effort and providing visibility to our sales organization and leadership team that has never been possible before."

The company is hoping these moves will put it in an advantageous position in the coming year, expose missed opportunities, and allow it to deliver value in new ways.

Launch a robotic process automation (RPA) initiative

A growing number of organizations are deploying RPA platforms to automate repetitive and often mundane processes normally handled by humans. Research firm Gartner in a September 2020 report predicted that worldwide RPA software revenue would reach $1.89 billion in 2021, up 20 percent from 2020.

The market is expected to grow at double-digit rates through 2024, according to the study. Among the main drivers for implementing RPA are the ability to improve process quality, speed, and productivity. Gartner predicts that 90 percent of large organizations worldwide will have deployed RPA in some manner by 2022.

One of the main goals of John Walker, IT director at shipping and logistics company H&M Bay, is to introduce the first RPA use case at his company in 2021.

The plan was to do this in 2020, but it was scuttled during budget talks, Walker says. He worked with multiple vendors to come up with proposals that would provide time for H&M Bay to try out the platforms before signing a long-term contract.

"I was brought here 17 years ago to design a custom system for this business, so we have been doing 'digital transformation' for that entire time period," Walker says. "RPA would add a new level of automation and business process improvement that has not been available to me."

The tools used with RPA would include machine learning/artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms. "I feel this technology holds the greatest promise at this point for further advancing our operations application to save time, reduce errors, increase profits," Walker says.

By using RPA the company hopes to improve a number of business processes, particularly by reducing the time it takes to complete tasks and eliminating errors.

"We have numerous processes where associates are looking at PDF documents on one screen and inputting or checking data on the other," Walker says. "If you could pull that information with OCR [optical character recognition] then process it to speed up the processes, you reduce errors and make the associate more efficient."

Automation is already a priority at H&M Bay. One of its digital transformation projects in 2020 was to outfit three of its shipping docks with workstations at every dock door. It automated the process of emptying and loading trucks via barcoding technology. The goal is to outfit all the other docks or a subset of them with the same systems.

"These workstations have cut time out of our cross-dock process, which gets trucks on the road to delivery destinations sooner" and also reduces labor costs, Walker says.

Foster a "caring" culture and attract and retain talent

With more questions than answers when it comes to when the pandemic might end and what the new normal will be in its wake, "heading into 2021 our priorities and goals will remain focused on keeping our team members safe, healthy, and engaged," says Michael Ringman, CIO of global digital services provider TELUS International.

This means the continued development of a digital native, dynamic, global team that is agile, scalable, and capable of working from wherever the work needs to be done, Ringman says.

The pandemic and shift to a remote work model has shaken up a lot of people, and IT can play a role in addressing this.

TELUS International conducted a survey earlier this year and that found more than half of Americans surveyed felt disconnected from their colleagues while working remotely, Ringman says. When asked what they miss most about working in the office, small talk and interacting with colleagues topped the list, followed by collaborating in person with a team.

To help its employees stay connected during these times, the company launched an enterprise social platform through Workvivo, internally named Cosmos. "We have seen strong adoption of the platform to date—86% of users are active—and will continue to find new ways to leverage it in the future based in part on user data we are able to collect and analyze," Ringman says.

Along with trying to meet the needs of remote workers, TELUS International is aiming to recruit and retain top talent. The need to do this in a competitive labor market will continue to intensify, Ringman says, and in today's environment it must be done for the most part virtually.

To recruit skilled professionals, TELUS International will use smart screening and classifications programs to effectively evaluate candidates' basic skills and language competencies, and assign evaluations that identify their specific strengths.

"This initial automated screening process, coupled with a robust psychometric suite to assess profiles based on resilience, emotional intelligence, and discipline, support our ability to take a candidate from recruiting to onboarding in only 125 minutes," Ringman says.

To retain staffers, the company will continue to help them thrive both personally and professionally through a multitude of development opportunities and certifications that it offers virtually through a learning portal available on desktop and mobile devices. "It is backed by a gamification strategy that we continue to develop that enables our team to learn at their own pace, track their progress with the use of badges, and engage in some friendly competition," Ringman says.

Continue a long-term digital transformation and cyber security enhancements

KVC Health Systems, a nonprofit child welfare and behavioral healthcare organization, has developed a three-year technology roadmap and aims to make progress on achieving goals of the plan during 2021.

The roadmap includes more use of AI, data warehousing, cloud services, and mobile access, as well as enhancing cyber security.

"Our focus is a constant state of digital transformation, whether it be sunsetting legacy tech, automating tasks, digitizing manual processes, or mining data to tell stories and enhance decision making," says Lonnie Johnson, CIO.

Security has been the biggest priority for the past few years, Johnson says. "We deal with protected health information [for] thousands of children and their families in the child welfare space," he says. "That makes us a huge target for cyber attacks."

In the upcoming year, the organization plans to invest in areas such as encrypting endpoints, multi-factor authentication, and multiple backup schemes.

KVC also aims to increase its use of cloud services. "Cloud storage and access is nothing new, however many organizations similar to ours are often slow about making that transition due to funding or a culture that is untrusting of the cloud," Johnson says.

In 2021, the organization will boost its use of cloud-based offerings such as Adobe Sign, which will enable employees to quickly send, sign, track, and monitor documents on any device from anywhere in the world. "This expedites the time it takes to finalize agreements and creates a solid audit trail," Johnson says.

It will also leverage Microsoft OneDrive, which will allow all user devices to create, edit, and share documents online with full security and Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Ace (HIPAA) compliance.

At the same time, KVC will be retiring legacy software applications that depend on platforms such as Citrix and moving them to an outward-facing secure platform, Johnson says. "This will allow complete mobility for our case workers to be able to access client files easily and securely," he says.

Enhanced cloud services and mobility combined will help enable remote work, Johnson says. "Our case workers are already mobile by the nature of their job, so we were already looking to build upon these services," he says. "However, COVID-19 accelerated our time to market on many of our initiatives."

Another area of focus for next year will be using AI for predictive modeling to help better understand the effects of various placements on children; for email security by analyzing messages for malicious content; and for server monitoring to assess performance.

Deploy new technologies to foster innovation

Jabil, a provider of manufacturing solutions, is aiming to turn the current worldwide health crisis into an opportunity to enhance the business through the use of innovative technology.

"This is a really exciting time for us as we discover and explore creative ways to best leverage new technologies to drive value creation and our ability to innovate," says May Yap, senior vice president and CIO.

Jabil launched a digital transformation effort a few years ago, including adding new local area and wide area network infrastructure for accelerated performance and to move toward a software-defined architecture.

"We have also put in place 'express route,' linking our infrastructure to cloud providers to ensure optimized performance," Yap says. This "has proven to be absolutely critical now when new norms of doing business are being replaced by virtual meetings and breakout discussions facilitated by remote collaboration tools," she says.

The company is deploying technologies such as augmented reality and virtual reality on its factory floors so customers who can't travel to the sites in person can still "walk the floor," Yap says. This will also help facilitate the transfer of production lines from one site to another seamlessly, she says.

"Our principle to accelerate digitalization within the factories is to digitalize, visualize, and then optimize," Yap says. Jabil is also enhancing its data lake so that the abundance of data collected through processes and machines have a common, unified place to be stored, engineered, and processed for analytics.

In the coming months, "we intend to accelerate our efforts to transform production systems, advance current value chains, and build new business models in partnership with our internal clients," Yap says.