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Tough choices, steady nerves and smart decisions: how business leaders can step up to the plate in 2021

It has been a year of momentous change and uncertainty – with events having a huge impact on businesses, budgets, and boardrooms. According toForrester, “The pandemic revealed the flaws of many companies’ technology strategies,” with organisations blindly turning to tech modernisation, simplification, consolidation and “…paralysed by their lack of technological and business maturity”[1].

2021 will be high-stakes for all. Competition will be fierce in the months ahead, and whilst many leaders have been focused on firefighting this year, there is now an urgent need to look towards the future and ensure not only recovery, but growth. Below, we hear from experts at and partners of Serviceware, a leading provider of software solutions for digitising and automating service processes, about the challenges and opportunities 2021 has to offer.

The key priorities for business leaders in 2021

For Dirk Martin, Chief Executive Officer at Serviceware, the biggest priority for business leaders in the year ahead will be centred around enterprise digital services and the associated financials. “2020, with its exceptional challenges, has motivated many businesses to accelerate their digital transformation initiatives, while many other felt the need to pause their investments in this area. Finding the right level of digital transformation by improving service levels while reducing costs will be critical to enable enterprises to grow in challenging times,” he comments. This year we have seen cashflow act as a crucial roadblock, standing in the way of businesses maintaining stability, profit forecasts and growth. “The future of your company will depend on your obsession for outstanding customer service and your adaptability to create profit and success in 2021,” Martin adds.

“Having the fortitude of sustaining medium- to long-term growth strategies – and related investment – whilst ensuring short-term cash flows and underlying corporate health to survive the post-COVID economic impact across the globe will be one of the main challenges for businesses next year,” comments Ronnie Wilson, Group Executive Vice President at Serviceware. But while internal factors will place a big role in business growth, so will external factors. “The business impact of COVID-19, where government tax reviews to cover the cost of the pandemic (a £2 trillion+ deficit), could impact the cost to run a business. The knock-on effect will include budgets cuts, which stifles innovation, investment and growth,” adds Rob Walker, Director, Coeus Consulting.

Another huge external influencing factor in halting business innovation next year will be the buzzword everyone has been discussing for years – Brexit. The UK’s withdrawal from the EU will undoubtedly have huge ramifications for businesses across all sectors next year. “Existing trading relations and supply chain processes will be need to redefined,” comments Claudia Blümle, Sales Director at Serviceware Performance. “New logistics challenges, pricing and tariff challenges will all lead to propensity to reduce customer satisfaction in terms of delivery and value,” adds Wilson, going onto discuss the sectors that will be hardest-hit. “Manufacturing will need to create and design new strategies to overcome these challenges and new IT applications and related processes. Finance and banking need to provide new financial applications to provide companies with more detailed analysis of their spend, which in turn should allow them to better support all businesses with financial support.”

Weathering the financial storm means watching out for icebergs

While furloughing and redundancies have hit staff across the UK – and in fact world – hard, no-one has envied business leaders, either. The c-suite has been torn between shoring up business operations and keeping its most important assets – its employees – happy. Financial headaches have kept CFOs up late and working through the night. Some CEOs have had to choose between their business and their workers. And although we’re all keen to see this year out, 31st December won’t provide a wipe-clean, reset button – 2021 will still demand tough choices, steady nerves and smart decisions.

“Focusing on demand and being flexible to adjust your strategic aims, during constant periods of uncertainty, should be a key priority for business leaders next year. You need to be able to adapt to market conditions quicker and make sure you take your people with you,” asserts Walker of Coeus Consulting. “Cost reduction, market development, innovation, leadership and the application of digital will be crucial,” comments Kevin Bell, Partner at Centigo.

And preparing for the storm also means keeping an eye out for icebergs at the same time. There will still be several barriers to growth next year, and planning for these road bumps with minimised resources is going to be another headache for the c-suite. “Put simply, organisations will need to do more with less – deliver more from cost budgets, sustain and improve current service levels, all the while investing in new future digital initiatives from the same or smaller cost budget allocation,” says Serviceware’s Wilson. “The biggest challenge will be for businesses to create an offer that is so uniform and convenient that it is scalable to the max, but feels like it’s customised for different customers,” predicts Nicolas Gascard, Sales Director Commercial at Serviceware PMCS.

Now, more than ever, rock-solid IT infrastructures and technological innovations that unlock value are crucial for businesses. And the pandemic has forced tech adoption and growth spurts this year particularly. Cloud usage increased massively in 2020, due to the flexibility, scalability and speed of deployment needed to pivot business operations. But how important will it be for 2021 – and what must business leaders watch out for?

Forrester predicts that “…the pandemic has a happy ending for the 30% of customer-obsessed firms that will harvest the opportunities that surfaced in the pandemic, taking advantage of their cloud-first and platform strategies.” In fact, its research suggests “…those organisations could grow their firms up to 3.5x faster than the average of their peers.”[2]

“This trend will get more and more important as it is the strategic road of the software vendor. Financial concerns touch on almost every challenge of migration. There’s the immediate cost to make the migration itself in addition to the long-term financial risks of low or slow adoption and training after the migration has occurred,” comments Blümle at Serviceware Performance. “The adoption of cloud will only increase if the solutions provide a lower cost to serve,” adds Walker. “The challenges customers will face will be around the control of data held and used vs policy; very similar when storage became cheap and companies became slack at controlling what they had and needed.”

Aside from cloud, there will be a huge change to the way companies view back-office functions such as IT and finance next year and beyond. “Back office functions should be seen as ‘value’ centres for the company and not ‘cost’ centres, adding little or no value. IT and finance leaders need to recognise that this cannot continue, and they should look to build plans and approaches to helping the company improve its bottom line and be proactive in doing so. Unfortunately, this mindset is not as well developed as it needs to be with CFOs and CTOs – the CEO needs to expect it from their c-level team and this message needs to be made clear as one of their key messages to the company,” says Wilson at Serviceware. Centigo’s Bell agrees: “Back office functions need to step up and become value centres not cost centres.”

While it remains unclear entirely what the new year will bring for business, one thing that is for certain is that cost control will remain an important factor moving forward. Transparent data and visibility across all areas within the enterprise, whether that be IT or operational, will be the foundation of accurate and effective decision-making over the coming months. Those businesses who arm themselves with quality data will be able to pave the way for future competitiveness and growth – in 2021 and beyond.

Reviewing IT infrastructure and control

Much has been said about decentralising IT, but this has its advantages and challenges in itself, with some experts against the idea. “I don’t really see decentralising IT being a trend. Even cloud leads to a centralisation of IT task within the companies,” comments PMCS’ Gascard. But some authorities see the benefits. “Advantages include providing more tailored and focussed solutions to decentralised users, which can be deployed quickly and provide benefit quicker to end users. Disadvantages are a lack of IT spend accountability and proactive quality management of applications and related costs with larger support costs and lack of economies of purchasing scale. Also, IT governance is less likely to be properly executed with a decentralised approach,” weighs up Wilson.

Coeus’ Walker agrees that IT decentralisation can bring plenty of advantages, but considerations too. “I have always been a fan of centralised strategy and governance with central control of corporate infrastructure plus group applications. The main advantages are a more tailored and higher quality of services to the business and end customer. Challenges include procurement, cost controls and the ability of the internal organisation to operate a hybrid model.”

While it remains unclear entirely what the new year will bring for business, one thing that is for certain is that cost control will remain an important factor moving forward. Transparent data and visibility across all areas within the enterprise, whether that be IT or operational, will be the foundation of accurate and effective decision-making over the coming months. Those businesses who arm themselves with quality data will be able to pave the way for future competitiveness and growth – in 2021 and beyond.

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