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Tracy Hackshaw, ICT and Digital Economy Strategist

GEISHA KOWLESSAR-ALONZO

From boosting workforce productivity to improving customer experience, accelerating digital transformation is critical for businesses in the Caribbean.

But PwC’s first Caribbean region digital readiness survey reveals a wide gap between organisations out in front and those struggling to make headway.

The survey noted that most respondents believed they’re meeting or exceeding targets on integrating new technologies into business processes, and products and services – 42 per cent on target and 28 per cent ahead.

But that leaves more than a quarter who acknowledged they are behind target.

Moreover, only 15 per cent believed that their digital fitness is on a par with or ahead of the leaders in their industry.

Zia Paton, PwC T&T partner and digital leader for PwC in the Caribbean noted that digital transformation is not about launching a single new tech product, or automating one simple process.

She said it’s about creating an entirely new way for teams to work, and for organisations to operate.

“It’s a journey that most respondents only began in the past three years. But 2020’s shift to digital and remote working forced by the pandemic has increased pressure to accelerate progress,” Paton said.

She added that the game-changing potential of digitisation includes more informed data-driven decisions, a more compelling employee and customer experience, and more tailored and targeted products and services.

“With so many digital possibilities, however, it’s critical to invest in the right ones,” Paton added.

The survey benchmarked where organisations in the Caribbean are on their digital journey across six key themes.

Respondents in the survey included 92 senior executives from leading businesses, in a variety of industries across the Caribbean, including The Bahamas, East Caribbean, Bermuda, Cayman Islands, Guyana, Jamaica and T&T.

The survey also noted that while digitisation is accelerating ground still has to be made up.

It noted there are now an infinite variety of digital tools and technologies on offer but the challenges of making and implementing the right choice are exacerbated by the need to get on with business as usual.

Respondents saw competing priorities as the biggest barrier to creating effective customer and employee experience.

The survey found that well over half (56 per cent) of companies expect at least 30 percent of their employees to work remotely more than one day a week a year from now.

However, for Caribbean organisations, further upskilling is critical.

Nearly half of respondents (46 per cent) believed their organisation is behind in training workers with skills for the digital era.

They cited lack of time and budget as the top barriers to upskilling their workforce with the lack of alignment/clarity on roles and responsibilities relating to digital ownership, and inflexible or slow processes as the biggest challenges to their overall digital transformation.

Frazer Lindsay, PwC in the Caribbean CEO said the findings provided valuable insights into how far regional businesses have come in their digital journey, how they can accelerate progress, and what they can learn from the front-runners – the transcenders.

The key take-away is that digital transformation is as much about workforce capabilities and empowerment as systems and technology, he said.

“The transcenders are making the most of their investment in new technology by upskilling their workforce, instilling an innovative mindset within their organisations and encouraging their people to embrace experimentation and change even if sometimes they fail,” Lindsay added.

Local perspective

Tracy Hackshaw, ICT and digital economy strategist noted that many T&T businesses, especially within the last 12 months, have embraced the concept of digital transformation.

However, perhaps equally as many are not fully aware of what the concept actually means.

Hackshaw explained that digital transformation implies that organisations – both in the public and private sector – need to shift their entire mindsets to one of “digital first.”

“This is not something that you can simply write on paper and throw money or technology at and hope that it just happens,” Hackshaw said, adding that like other transformational efforts, this is a fundamental shift in thinking and doing, and requires an organizational culture sea change.

Leadership is key.

But Hackshaw said also understanding that simply automating or “digitising” existing processes are not likely to result in the outcomes that businesses anticipate.

“For most organizations, digital transformation requires a rethink, or a reset of how you do the things you do, and in several cases, it requires a reset of what you do,” Hackshaw explained.

He also noted it is very clear that with the likely exception of the very large businesses, major business conglomerates and businesses operating in data-centric industries such as finance, the public and private sectors are operating, by and large, in a data vacuum.

Hackshaw said while 60 per cent of the survey respondents in the region have identified data as critical to driving their data transformation strategy, in T&T there is a massive gap in the recognition of this.

“Way too many public and private sector organisations treat data as an afterthought or something that is the purview of the ‘IT Department’ as opposed to seeing it as integral to decision-making and becoming more competitive.

“In T&T, information technology/information and communication technology (IT/ICT), and unfortunately therefore, data, is very often relegated to a “support” function, buried under a finance or operations reporting line of business, with very low visibility to and by the organisation’s executive leadership,” Hackshaw said.

He added that instead of its correct position as a key driver of organisational growth and development, in an uncomfortably significant percentage of organizations IT/ICT/data is equated to ancient metrics such as “number of computers” and is viewed as one of the first budgetary areas to be cut, especially during challenging economic circumstances, when actually the very opposite should be the case.

Tellingly, C-suite digital leaders (i.e. chief information/technology/digital officers) are a rare sight in local org charts and structures, Hackshaw said, adding that far less the relatively new specialized skill sets and roles of data scientists, data engineers and data architects that are in exceptionally high demand globally.

He said understanding trends, projections and forecasts and deep analysis regarding what is behind the developments in local, regional and international markets are very often seen as the domain of economists, social scientists and statisticians while looking behind the behaviour and habits of customers and stakeholders appear to be limited to surface level data visualizations or “executive dashboards.”

“Our local organizations appear to not even be considering the design and construction of bespoke data models, predictive models, and customer analysis.

“Our public sector remains woefully behind in the global drive towards an open data paradigm despite statements to contrary over the years by political leadership,” Hacksaw said.

He advised that moving beyond mere talk and statements of intent are also important with public and private sector leadership needing to play an tremendously active role in ensuring that “digital first” thinking is mainstreamed into organizational strategic planning exercises going forward.

While there is no true quick fix to these challenges, technology and digital first thinking can greatly assist with accelerating adoption, Hackshaw said, adding that adequate resources – financial and human – need to be dedicated to this effort, and priority placed on ensuring success.

However, he noted it is encouraging to see that the Government has taken note of the pandemic’s impacts, and dedicated a substantial portion of its 2021 statement of intent towards engendering a digital approach in both the public and private sectors.

“But as a country, we must hold our political leadership to account – ensuring that the political will within the Government on driving T&T away from a legacy oil and gas based economy towards one that is at least 25 to 30 per cent driven by digital is not lost amongst the many other competing issues, voices and interests,” Hackshaw added.