At this time of year, in the business community, we all face a deluge of future-gazing articles. And it happens in all industries.
Sometimes, the forecasts ring true.
Often, those gazing into their crystal balls mean well, but they need to look a little deeper.
Frequently, the predictions are out the window and long forgotten by the time January ends.
And that’s because in making these projections, it’s no good to rely solely on the last 12 months as a benchmark – even if those 12 months were those of 2020, with all the weighty talking points it offers.
Of course, the past year has seen changes that feel like the earth has shifted on its axis.
But, for now, at least, the planet is still pretty much on the same orbit.
I say that not to downplay the tragedies and the losses of 2020.
Rather, it’s to say that sometimes, in business, when we focus only on the recent changes rather than the timeless constants, we are doing ourselves a disservice.
The world of technology – in which AdEPT operates – is particularly fixated with change.
But one valued truth for me, and AdEPT, is this:
Technology changes, but business fundamentals do not.
And if this blog, about the coming year, is worth me writing – and you reading – then it’s as important to consider some of the constants in business, and in technology, as it is to consider the shifts.
Focus on customers – and cash in the bank
When the pandemic suddenly took hold, we ran financial models for every possible scenario. And in doing so, we focused on four questions:
1) What happens to order intakes when your sales team can no longer physically meet anybody?
2) What happens to revenue when you can’t visit sites to complete projects?
3) What’s going to happen to our customer base? Not necessarily the possibility of them leaving for other suppliers – which should always be at the front of our minds – but if they shrink, or go out of business?
4) How can we concentrate on cash collection? And how can we do this while everybody is struggling with money? After all, if we all stop paying each other, then the troubles spiral.
In addressing these points, we did quite well. Our view – and from my experience of four recessions – is that when a crisis happens, it’s essential to have cash reserves so you can survive whatever comes your way.
Fortunately, we were in a good place with this. And so, I urge other businesses to adopt this principle. Not just for the sake of their business and customers, but for their partners and suppliers, too.
When you concentrate on your customers – and your customers’ customers – and having cash in the bank, then you’re giving yourself thick waders and a windproof umbrella to weather the storms ahead.
Technology: some things have irreversibly changed, but some things have stayed the same
Being a technology company that specialises in connectivity and related services, we have key worker status. And in 2020, we’ve seen that role come to the fore – with good reason.
For example, through the pandemic, we’ve helped more than 4,000 schools roll out remote teaching and learning technology. We’ve helped doctors’ surgeries make the switch to video appointments and reroute their telephony so staff can handle calls from home. We’ve helped social care organisations transform their IT so that care staff can securely use software from home.
For many, these changes feel like a revolution. And that’s entirely understandable. But for us at AdEPT, the shifts are more of evolution. That is to say, they follow a general course of travel for technology, accelerated by the pandemic.
One area this evolution highlights is our need for faster, and more reliable connectivity. And I like to compare this to a motorway. Because no matter how advanced the car may be, if the motorway isn’t fit for purpose, then the traffic will pile up, and nobody will get anywhere.
And with this point, here’s my first observation about the future. There are some 32 million premises in the UK, but the plan for the next six years is for fibre to reach 39 million premises, suggesting there will be more than one supplier for many premises.
BT will be the provider for 20 million of those 39 million premises, leaving eight or more providers for the remaining 19 million. And among those other providers will be new players, and those that cherry-pick locations and markets.
As this evolution continues, some premises will benefit from the upgrades sooner rather than later, and others will be right at the end of the timescale. There will be winners and losers.
Of course, describing the future as having winners and losers is hardly rocket science. But notice that above I said ‘observation’ – not ‘prediction’ about the future. Because as 2020 has shown us, observations are, realistically, all that any of us can make.
And anybody that says otherwise is blagging, or has a vested interest – or likely both. I’ll return to this shortly.
Powering the public sector with better connectivity
As with many past crises, 2020 has thrust the public sector into the spotlight. And with no choice but to offer virtual services, 2020 may have expedited the public sector’s shift to remote health and social care.
Let’s take a GP practice as an example – a form of healthcare that we all know well.
I believe if at the tail end of 2019, you’d told GPs they’d be running appointments over video within a few months, they would have challenged the suggestion. But by April 2020, this is precisely what was happening.
Similarly, if you asked GPs now if they still prefer face-to-face consultations and would revert to such arrangements if possible, most of them would jump at the chance.
And this makes perfect sense. There is no substitute for seeing people in the flesh. This is as true for reassuring a patient as it is for having a business meeting, or indeed a Christmas party. And I say this as a founder of a technology company who knows the power of connectivity.
Yet, at the same time, I have a hunch that when the dust settles on the pandemic, we’ll see a public health system with permanent changes. I imagine at least a third of GP services will remain virtual – and that underlines my earlier point…
Greater connectivity will become even more critical, particularly for the public sector.
And with that, companies like us at AdEPT – and connectivity providers as a whole – must help the NHS find the right solutions to these challenges.
We must help those hospitals that are not in the major cities to benefit from faster connectivity.
We must help rural GP practices connect more reliably with their communities.
And we must do this knowing that it isn’t just the pandemic that has accelerated these shifts. We should instead recognise our population is ageing – and respond accordingly. It’s a world where future generations will expect more and more services to be available online.
In November, I gave a talk about this very subject – called ‘The Age of Ageing’ – at the annual Public Sector Connect summit. There’s a link to a video about this below.
And with more extensive connectivity must come greater security. I will consider this next week…
For your further consideration:
・This blog is the first in a two-part article by Ian Fishwick. Follow the AdEPT LinkedIn page for updates about the next instalment.
Ian is the founder and chairman of AdEPT Technology Group, as well as the commercial director of Innopsis – the trade association for suppliers of digital infrastructure and services to the UK public sector. At Innopsis, he is responsible for championing SMEs and the association’s work with the Cabinet Office. You can find out more about Ian here, or connect with him on LinkedIn here.