Future technology investments must augment and empower workers

17 November 2022 Consultancy.eu 7 min. read

Investment in technology has continued unabated since the pandemic hit. While investments are set to remain high across the landscape, new research by Economist Impact commissioned by Cognizant has found that most investments will be centred around one key theme: empowering workers to leverage technology and data insights.

The research finds that worldwide technology adoption shows no signs of slowing down. The vast majority of respondents (80% or more) have adopted or plan to adopt the increasingly table-stakes technologies of advanced analytics, cloud and internet of things.

For its study, Economist Impact and Cognizant surveyed over 2,000 business leaders across North America, Europe and Asia Pacific.

Tech adaption shows no sign of slowing down

Over 60% of respondents have ventured into the more advanced areas of artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotics, advanced cloud, robotic process automation, low-code/no-code, crowdsourcing, 5G and remote-work technologies. Meanwhile, over half of respondents chimed in on the emerging areas of blockchain, quantum computing and virtual/augmented reality.

At first glance, it might seem that executives are snapping up every technology in sight. On closer inspection, the researchers found that the spending spree is less haphazard than it seems.

When executives were asked to rate the extent to which their digital strategy prioritised 12 key imperatives, nine of these imperatives received business-critical attention from at least one-third of respondents, and all were deemed, at the very least, a medium/high priority by over 89% of respondents.

Business priorities

Digging a bit deeper into the responses, the researchers unravelled three critical shifts in technology spending that according to their analysis will “fundamentally alter the nature of enterprise technology in a modern business.”

These shifts are: a need for data insights, a desire to equip (not replace) workers with digital tools, and the knowledge that – increasingly – employees need to feel in control of the technologies they’re using to add value to their business and their jobs.

1) Getting data-powered insights into people’s hands

The volatility of the past two-plus years has left businesses reeling from unpredictable market shifts, changing consumer habits and black swan events. Learning from this experience, many are focused on shoring up data governance and investing in tools to bring decision-making to new levels.

Over one-third of respondents (33%) believe data collection, governance and evolving forecasting and decision-making capabilities are business-critical, and nearly all (97%) place at least a medium priority level on these activities.

It’s clear why executives are eager to push data and insight generation higher up the business agenda. Consider the recent supply chain challenges caused by post-pandemic disruptions: the large cargo ship clogging up the Suez Canal, industrial action stymying the flow of freight from industrial hubs.

Leaders with robust supply chain data and strong analytics capabilities have the tools to start designing workarounds and contingencies to minimize impact. They can forecast and model the impact of business and market changes, highlight areas of risk and prioritize measures that de-risk and optimize.

Beyond this, executives are focusing even more on leveraging data and insights to anticipate and adapt to changing customer demands – and then developing the customer experience to deliver on them. In fact, anticipating customer demands was second only to cybersecurity in terms of the number of respondents naming it as business-critical (44% for cybersecurity and 42% for anticipating customer needs).

A quality customer experience followed closely, with 41% of respondents deeming this business-critical. New touchpoints with customers, employees and suppliers are now essential survival tools, and any business armed with deft, data-driven capabilities and dashboarding views has a head start for surviving the turbulent times ahead.

2) Augmenting, not replacing, people

An impressive 96% of respondents are prioritizing technology investments that augment, rather than replace, their workforce, and a sturdy 34% said this was business-critical. This is good news; dystopian tropes such as robot overlords are being replaced by a more realistic understanding of the future of work. And even with 38% of respondents making operational efficiency a business-critical priority, the idea is not to eliminate workers but to augment them to perform at higher levels.

Leaders and workers alike are beginning to recognize that the future relies on humans and machines working in collaboration. Both become greater than the sum of their parts through closer integration – with new tools multiplying workers' efforts and channeling valuable data and insights to power better decision-making.

Take the hypothetical example of how a modern field-based utility workforce might operate. Armed with a wealth of data and an augmented-reality-powered heads-up display, they could envisage pipelines in the ground underneath their feet. Machine learning algorithms rifling through pipeline data could predict tiny cracks based on pressure drops. This data could be fed to workers, helping them home in on defects and streamline maintenance and repair processes.

The technology isn’t replacing the worker; it’s augmenting their capabilities, driving greater productivity and enhancing the employee experience.

3) Providing workforce autonomy

The renewed zeal for people-powered and human-centric technology investment unleashes a new trend: the democratization of technology, named by 91% of respondents as a priority (26% as a business-critical priority).

This push aims to give workers greater control and input over the technologies they use daily. This is born from a growing recognition that bringing those who work with technologies closer to selection and implementation is beneficial. In particular, employees are far more likely to engage with technologies they have had a hand in implementing.

This boosts the return on value of technology investments, which has often been held back by adoption challenges. In fact, the study shows respondents face a value challenge: Of those respondents that had implemented each of the technologies in the study, almost half say they are not achieving significant value from their technology investments.

Businesses struggle to unlock the full potential of their tech

Greater adoption could change that ratio for the better. Take automation as an example. When the workers most aligned with processes and touchpoints are brought into the selection process, they can highlight areas in which the technology offers the most value. This not only improves the value of the tech investment but also reassures employees that the initiative is intended to augment the value they bring to the organization, not to replace them.

A related technology investment to watch is the increased popularity of no-code/low-code platforms, which 62% of respondents say they’ve adopted or plan to adopt. These tools enable business users to develop solutions with little or no background in software development, which allow the people closest to the customer or the problem to take a direct hand in solution development.

This is a shift which is expected to develop considerably in coming years, particularly as leaders strive to build technology environments that empower workers rather than displace them.

Conclusion

Commenting on the report’s findings, Euan Davis, Associate Vice President at Cognizant, said: “In a world of rapid technology acceleration, it is little surprise that businesses are ramping up investment in technology – whether to power a new insight engine or to replace creaky technologies.”

“While technology may form the cornerstone of investment strategies, the overarching goal is to bring the data and insights to employees to help them deliver better results. The future must bring humans and technology closer than ever, so they can respond intuitively to the changing world around them.”