The Future of Business is Here

Rapid digitalization has ushered us into a booming technological age, and that is changing how we work in fundamental ways. Here are a few things that businesses need to consider for their future.

Just outside of Boston, there’s a family-run diner that serves what some consider the best sandwiches in town. Yet business is slow.

The diner doesn’t have a website or a social media presence, so new customers can’t get a menu, place an order or easily find it online. While longtime customers grow older, the rising generation has started to frequent a restaurant down the street that accepts online orders and payment — though the sandwiches aren’t half as good. Despite its great food, good location and loyal customer base, the well-loved diner may not be around in a few years.

This story is likely familiar. It’s clear that the future of conducting business is digital — from the C-suite down to delivery drivers — and for businesses to remain relevant and accessible into the 21st century, implementing digital systems and strategies is a necessity. Digitalization has ushered us into what some people are even calling an updated industrial revolution, and the sweeping changes we’ve seen so far may be only the beginning.

Keeping a business alive today can require flexibility, innovation and far more than just a website.

Growing and shrinking industries

We’ve certainly felt the tremors of the influence of the digital revolution, but seismic shifts are on the way. By 2020, the World Economic Forum’s The Future of Jobs report predicts, the global economy may experience a loss of 5 million office jobs and a gain of 2 million tech jobs. Even jobs that may not face significant losses may require very different skill sets in just a few years’ time, such as those of marketing or supply-chain professionals. What’s more, as staple industries such as manufacturing and production continue to shrink, opportunities will continue to grow in advanced robotics and autonomous transport, biotechnology and genomics, and artificial intelligence.

Other economic changes are being driven by consumer demand for products that are more sustainable. Today, carbon footprints, food safety, labor standards, animal welfare and a company’s record on ethical trade are all factors for consumers who are increasingly concerned about the global effect of their purchases.

The very nature of work itself is changing, with flexible working arrangements and telecommuting, rapid urbanization and increasing longevity. But what do these changes mean for businesses?

Micro changes, macro impact

Many business owners undoubtedly feel trepidation about going digital. But the upside, says business futurist Morris Miselowski, is that “digitalization offers businesses of all sizes the ability to enter a marketplace to find a new product or a new service — or to offer a different slant on a product or service — and to take that to market and become competitive.”

Operations. The digital revolution has leveled the playing field by giving businesses access to the kinds of resources that were once available only to larger corporations, says Lori H. Schwartz, chief technology catalyst for StoryTech, a B2B strategy firm. One such critical resource is software as a service (SaaS) platforms that are quickly replacing manual processes, such as a variety of models offering subscription-based payroll and accounting services that make it easy to scale up or down. “The digital revolution is giving business owners the ability to leverage and benefit from business software that manages such things as inventory, resources, content rights and analytics,” says Schwartz.

Production. Digitalization is making costly aspects of production less expensive and more accessible. “Businesses need to realize they don’t have to do everything themselves anymore,” says Caroline Daniels, a lecturer at Babson College whose research covers future trends and entrepreneurial strategy. “They can reach out to software service companies for their processes, and they can also work with the maker community, which allows business owners to use the latest technology to create and design prototypes, products and delivery methods.” With shared access to innovative tools such as laser cutters or 3-D printers, businesses can build and refine their initial prototypes, without investing in costly equipment.

Funding. Digitalization has also given rise to crowdsourcing, micro-lending and innovation communities that focus on development in specific economic areas. By attracting investment funds and creating polls to determine community needs, innovation communities support entrepreneurs by giving them somewhere to obtain funding that comes with market analysis. These investments have a grassroots feel.

Outsourcing. This is perhaps the most well-known business impact of the digital revolution. While information and technology jobs are being staffed by people outside of a company at a greater rate, so-called wisdom jobs — “positions that require taking in information, making sense of it and questioning whether it’s right or wrong,” explains Miselowski — are becoming all the more valuable. Businesses should invest more in a few people who can innovate and communicate, while outsourcing the information processes that have become more streamlined, says Daniels, who notes that one thing should never be outsourced: relationships with customers. “You want to keep relationships as close to business as possible, especially in the beginning.”

The next phases of digitalization

By 2020, the The Future of Jobs report predicts, artificial intelligence (AI) and augmented reality will have far-reaching implications. While we’re already seeing their implementation in large companies, businesses will soon have the same level of access.

“We need to marry technology appropriately, and for a business, that doesn’t require a huge commitment,” says Miselowski. “What it requires is the ability to not just monitor, but anticipate.” Today’s “anticipatory technology” already demonstrates the beginnings of AI, explains Miselowski. Think of the way search engines fill in new queries based on previous searches, or the way navigation software anticipates destinations based on previous trips.

And while virtual reality is commonly associated with video games, augmented reality blurs the line between the real and the computer-generated, enhancing the user’s experience and opening up new doors for employee training. “Where virtual reality and its cousin, augmented reality, get really exciting is that they will eventually provide a number of education and communication solutions,” says Schwartz. For instance, augmented reality is currently being leveraged in the medical community as a guide during operations.

So when we think about our local Boston analog diner, don’t think of its limitations. Think of its potential. While digitalization has closed certain business doors, it’s also opened plenty of new ones. “Businesses have never been in a better position to take on the world,” says Miselowski. “It’s not about their size anymore; it’s about their business.”


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