5 Key Trends That Could Transform Your Business
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The new economy has brought changes that have transformed nearly every business. We have identified 5 key trends that are shaping business today and are likely to do so for the next decade.

The new economy—increasingly digital, global and flexible—has led to cascading, accelerating change that has transformed nearly every business. And more change in the coming year is a virtual certainty. But what will that change look like for your business? Commercial Insights has identified five key trends that are shaping business today and are likely to do so for the decade. Some, such as difficulty finding and keeping talented staff, are a product of business cycles and the age-old reality of supply and demand. Others, from the rise of artificial intelligence to blockchain, represent developments that until recently were the stuff of science fiction, but are rapidly becoming realities that every company needs to understand and prepare for.

1. Employee retention

In early October, unemployment was 3.7%, the lowest level in nearly 50 years, underscoring what most business owners already know: Finding and keeping good employees is getting harder. While that’s true across many sectors and job types, companies are competing especially hard for workers with technology skills.

“It’s tough to find cybersecurity talent, or talent specializing in programming or analytical functions,” says Ryan King, Head of Regions Talent Acquisition. And after years of high unemployment rates when every job, it seemed, had multiple applicants, “potential employees are smarter about the full benefit picture than they’ve ever been before. They’re more aggressive about things like health care, pharmacy benefits, dental, 401(k)s and long-term incentives.”

While smaller employers may not always offer the same scope of benefits as larger ones, taking a concerted interest in each staff member’s career growth can go a long way, King notes. “Employee engagement is about making sure each employee has a professional development plan, a career path, and that they know that the company is invested in their future.”

No matter how long the strong economy and low unemployment last, the key is to have a forward-thinking strategy in place, King says. He recommends an annually updated human-resource strategy that takes into account your company’s short- and long-term goals. “Any company’s number one commodity is their people,” King says. “So why wouldn’t your number one strategy be about your people?”

2. Data security

Businesses now stand a higher chance of experiencing a serious data breach—28%—than individuals do of catching the flu, according to the 2018 Cost of a Data Breach Study by Ponemon Institute. Even smaller breaches, involving fewer than 10,000 documents, cost companies an average of $2.1 million, the study found.

“You’ve got to protect your own intellectual property, ensure that your associates don’t lose data and, most importantly, protect your customer information,” says Jeff Kennedy, Regions Chief Information Security Officer. Rising security threats coincide with demands for the convenience that comes with having more capabilities and storage in the cloud.

Fortunately, some of the most effective security steps don’t require major outlays for new technology, Kennedy says. “A lot of it comes down to good cyber hygiene.” Encourage customers and employees to create complex, unpredictable passwords, and don’t re-use them on multiple systems.

Also use two-factor (or multifactor) authentication wherever feasible. “Keep your systems up-to-date with the latest patches, and limit access to your most critical assets to those employees who truly need it. You’d be surprised how far that goes,” Kennedy says.

Also educate your employees. Something as simple as ensuring that employees avoid sending sensitive emails or files while they’re using a public wireless internet connection at the airport or a coffee shop, can help prevent breaches. “Employees need to understand the vulnerabilities and rising number of external threats, and have the discipline to use the secure systems the company has in place.”

3. Automation

The term “automation,” immediately brings to mind robotic welders and assembly arms. And while 1.7 million new robots will populate the world’s factories by 2020, according to the International Federation of Robotics estimates, automation is staking new ground in service companies and white-collar businesses, says Marc Mullins, Manager of Regions Corporate Banking Group. “Automation doesn’t stop where most people think it does,” he notes.

For any business, “automation is about taking any redundancy, waste and inefficiencies out of the equation. It’s about efficient use and reuse of data and routines that improve processes for you and your customers.” That can mean targeting advertisements with precision to customers who, based on past behaviors, are likely to be looking for a specific product or experience. As an example of automation moving into new areas, Mullins cites a handyman service he contacted recently for a home repair job. “They had a completely automated experience for me, from reserving a convenient time, to setting the scope of the repairs,” he recalls. “They showed up, told me when the work would be finished, and as soon as the job was done they sent me an automated feedback form to see if I was satisfied, followed by an automated invoice. They made the process effortless.”

For any company that deals directly with consumers, the challenge is to capture the benefits of automation without losing the human touch or making customers feel neglected. “Ideally, robotics and automation should help companies do a better job at face-to-face contact,” Mullins says. Used properly, automated processes enable companies to deploy workers more effectively, “allowing them to pay closer attention to service and human aspects of the transaction.”

One reason that automation is having a bigger impact is that it is enabled and improved by advances in our next trend, artificial intelligence.

4. Artificial intelligence

We’ve all seen the movies in which computers grow smarter than their human developers and wreak havoc on the world. But in business, the reality of artificial intelligence (AI) is proving to be far different. “AI is just augmenting the intelligence your associates already have,” says Chris Brasher, Head of Regions Bank Operations. “It’s making the decisions easier. You still need human input.” Brasher isn’t alone in that assessment—more than two-thirds of executives polled for a recent PwC survey believe that the pairing of human and artificial intelligence will be a positive force, and 65% of workers say AI will free them from the more menial tasks associated with their jobs.

While much of the current business use of AI involves cybersecurity, it is expanding to areas such as customer service and beyond, Brasher notes. For instance, computers capable of analyzing images may soon help insurance companies settle claims. “They’ll look at the picture and understand the damage and make a recommendation on the size of the claim,” Brasher adds—all with greater speed and accuracy than human eyes. Car repair companies, meanwhile, may learn directly from on-board computers what’s wrong with a car, enabling them to order parts before the car arrives in the shop.

Businesses can also use machine learning to constantly improve their onboarding programs, allowing them to train new hires faster, resulting in reduced expense and higher productivity, Brasher suggests. With each new associate they train, AI systems will be able to learn where new hires struggled, and what they picked up quickly, and adjust accordingly, he notes.

When investing in AI, Brasher suggests business owners start with a basic question about “pain points”—those of their customers and their own. And then they should explore whether AI might address those issues. If so, he suggests that businesses be willing to test incrementally before making a large-scale investment.

5. Blockchain

Blockchain emerged a decade ago as the technology behind new digital currencies, often called “cryptocurrencies.” And while bitcoin has conquered most of the headlines, blockchain technology has quietly gained acceptance in a wide range of areas and holds the promise of revolutionizing how businesses process transactions.

Blockchain is, essentially, a means of digital record-keeping. Individual “blocks” of information are connected to one another, forming long chains that are resistant to hacking or tampering. That protection enables independent parties—say, two businesses—to engage in secure transactions without the need for centralized third parties to verify the transaction, explains Greg Miles, Senior Vice President and Head of Regions Treasury Management Digital and Shared Services. “The applications of blockchain are virtually limitless,” Miles says, adding that they include health care, where blockchain could provide a means for managing and authenticating electronic medical records, and supply chain management.

While the technology is still new, Miles harks back to the early days of the internet, when the technology, let alone its financial potential, seemed murky at best. “You don’t have to go back very far to remember when people didn’t understand what a browser was.”

Some large companies in transportation, technology and finance have already made major investments in blockchain. For small- and mid-sized companies, now may be a time for learning. “Education is the key,” Miles says. Staying abreast of new developments in your industry is the best way to be ready as the technology matures. “Blockchain is coming, probably a little more quickly than people think,” he adds, along with an observation that might apply to all of the disruptions facing businesses today, “Don’t assume this is going away.”

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