Illustration of a butterfly emerging from its cocoon against a yellow background, symbolising workplace digital transformation.
Image: © Good Studio/

What to expect from workplace digital transformation in 2021

9 Dec 2020

How will digital transformation look in 2021? What are companies doing now to prepare? We learn more from experts on the matter.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that Covid-19 has brought us much closer to a digital working world. We’ve taken our meetings, catch-ups and even our Christmas parties to Zoom and other videoconferencing tools. We’ve had to become more conscious of cybersecurity while bringing work devices into our homes. Some of us have even had to depend on technology while starting a new job remotely.

And it’s all happened in less than a year. If we can pivot so successfully in such a short space of time, how will our momentum continue? As 2020 comes to a close, thought leaders have begun to share their predictions for the future of work and how we’ll evolve in 2021. So, what are they saying about digital transformation?

AI and machine learning

Some of the biggest workplace changes will be driven by AI and machine learning, says dotData’s Ryohei Fujimaki. He’s anticipating a “second wave” of digital transformation. The first, he says, homed in on digitising products and services for early adopters in financial services, insurance and manufacturing. The second will revolutionise how we work, targeting “organisational efficiencies” and automating “intelligent business decision-making” across all industries.

“AI and machine learning will be embedded into multiple business functions across key business areas to not only drive efficiencies but also to create new products and services,” Fujimaki says. “One of the key reasons that this is happening now is the availability of AI and machine-learning automation platforms that make it possible for organisations to implement AI quickly and easily without investing in a data science team.”

Fujimaki believes this could even lead to more fluid business-intelligence (BI) roles as they could be tasked with developing and managing AI and machine-learning models. He refers to these as “BI-based AI developers”. He sees this as a more sustainable and scalable alternative to recruiting data scientists and believes it will speed up the lifecycle of products and services from requirement to working model.

Cloud and data literacy

Along with AI and machine learning, cloud-based models could help workplaces meet the changes and demands brought by 2021. According to Workday CIO Sheri Rhodes, those businesses that already had a cloud infrastructure in place could react quickly to the impacts of Covid. She’s confident this is changing people’s perceptions of the cloud on a number of levels, including how they manage distributed workforces and leveraging tighter security.

“With a distributed workforce it is essential that people have access to the data they need when they need it, and this has to be the focus of the CIO and the IT team,” she says. Rhodes believes this highlights one of the key areas businesses will need to prioritise next year and beyond: data literacy.

“In the past, data was often seen as the territory of just IT,” she says. “But as you can see, especially with the advent of GDPR, understanding how data is used, accessed and safeguarded needs to be understood by every single employee in any organisation.”

Overcoming the digital skills gap

Although technology is the fuel for digital transformation, it’s humans who must keep their foot on the gas. Joe Tynan, digital leader at PwC Ireland, echoes Rhodes’ sentiments about preparing people for a more digital world. For example, he recognises the “ever-widening skills gap” that needs addressing if technological advances are to continue.

“2020 has impacted the world in unexpected ways and brought to the forefront some underlying challenges that businesses already face,” he says. “Technology is evolving at a breath-taking pace, creating a more digitally savvy customer. Businesses need to transform with the power of digital strategy, automation and data insights.”

Earlier this year, 74pc of more than 1,500 chief executives said they were concerned about the availability of key skills for digital transformation in a PwC survey. And while many said they had upskilling programmes in place, just 20pc said theirs was effective at reducing skills gaps and mismatches.

PwC graph on workplace digital transformation and upskilling initiatives.

Click to enlarge. Graph: PwC

To overcome this challenge internally at PwC, Tynan explains that $3bn will be invested in upskilling the company’s 276,000 employees around the world over the next four years.

“In Ireland, over 90pc of our people have attended a Digital Academy in the last year,” he says. This involves two days of specialist digital training followed by personalised continued-learning pathways.

“35 ‘digital accelerators’ have been tasked with driving PwC’s ambition to continue to build trust in society and solve important problems for our clients, now using digital to further drive relevance, distinctiveness and growth in a new world.”

Empowering people for workplace digital transformation

Tynan drives home the message that people will be integral to pushing digital transformation forward next year, and empowering them will be central to that.

“2020 has accelerated fundamental digital adoption everywhere,” he says. “Driving adoption for more sophisticated technologies is complex. We’ve gone beyond ‘the carrot and stick’ to create real engagement by giving our people the power to lead the transformation themselves.

“Digital transformation is not about technology, it’s about people. Paired with a deliberately innovative work culture, it breeds confidence for our future. In a year of uncertainty, a people-first, culture-focused digital transformation strategy has proven itself to be the right choice for our business’s future.”

Lisa Ardill
By Lisa Ardill

Lisa Ardill joined Silicon Republic as senior careers reporter in July 2019. She has a BA in neuroscience and a master’s degree in science communication. She is also a semi-published poet and a big fan of doggos. Lisa briefly served as Careers Editor at Silicon Republic before leaving the company in June 2021.

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