North Highland: The top strategic priorities for businesses in 2021

04 February 2021 4 min. read
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Cybersecurity, operational efficiency, and customer experience are strategic priorities for businesses in 2021, while digital transformation continues to evolve in the backdrop. A new study by North Highland elaborates.

North Highland’s 2021 Beacon report draws on a survey of more than 700 top professionals at businesses with $1 billion+ in annual revenues. The backdrop is a new year, charged with a keenness to move past the pandemic-induced crisis.

Barbara Ray – recently promoted to president at North Highland –  says that deciding strategic priorities for 2021 is like piecing together a jigsaw puzzle. Cybersecurity, operational efficiency, and customer experience are key pieces in this puzzle for businesses – underpinned by a focus on digital capabilities, data, and analytics.
CybersecurityThe strategic priorities are a product of market conditions. Indeed, virtual working has stretched IT infrastructure to unprecedented levels – opening up a host of cyber vulnerabilities. Cybersecurity is front and center for nearly 85% of businesses as a result.

Then there are eroding cash reserves and disrupted business processes, which put operational efficiency towards the top of the wishlist for 80%. With the back end secured, nearly 80% are also worried about improving customer experience – preparing for fundamental changes to consumer behavior and expectations.

This is not an entirely new set of priorities. A similar North Highland survey at the start of 2020 already revealed customer experience and operational efficiency as the top focus areas.

The fact is that businesses worldwide have been investing in digital transformation for years now. With tech capabilities broadly aligned, differentiated customer experience and greater efficiency are means to edging ahead. This holds truer than ever in a highly competitive post-pandemic market.

Digital capabilities

Not to say that tech investments have taken a back seat. Indeed, technology and data are core drivers of efficiency and customer experience. Digital transformation efforts are just evolving to the next level.

While just over half of businesses are focused on tech investments, more than 70% are seeking enterprise scale transformation this year. At the same time, few have confidence in their ability to attain these goals. The answer, per the study, lies in making the transformation more agile – a strategic priority for more than 70%.

Core among agile processes is iterative planning. Be it resource allocation, strategy or budgeting, the key is to revisit and tweak these plans as frequently as possible in response to rapidly evolving market factors. Well over half of all businesses have increased the frequency of planning across all these departments.

Accelerating transformation with agile

So technology is evolving, as are business priorities. According to North Highland experts, what needs to advance now is talent. “Given the importance of processes, ways of working, and operating models in building the muscle to adapt and transform, we believe that the missing piece in transformation is not technology, but rather people,” said Ray.

“People put processes and ways of working into action, forging an essential link across strategic aspirations, action, and outcomes.“ And this assessment is backed up by the research.

“Two- thirds of organizations cite workforce skills and capability as a top factor hindering their preparedness to tackle strategic priorities, with workforce capacity a factor for 60 percent of organizations.” The solution here is to empower the human resources (HR) function.

Involving HR as a central part of transformation planning enables it to drive this change at a people level. Designing new work models and processes, devising performance indicators, and keeping employees supported engaged and fulfilled are all strategic functions that HR can serve. This is in addition to company-wide upskilling efforts to keep pace with the rate of technological change.