Learn which technologies will impact your business in 2021 and beyond.
I think that most of us are glad to change the calendar from 2020 to 2021. As we try to stabilize and build on the new normal, we’ll also be building on technology – specifically, the ones that power, optimize, and change how we will do business.
In this article, I’ll consider tech trends in four broad areas: data and business process automation, AI applications, Cloud computing, and areas related to software development and technological growth. Even if you’re not running a tech company, you’ll feel the impact of at least one of these in your daily business.
Data & Automation Tech Trends
First, let’s look at two trends that will shape how businesses function: digital process automation and customer data platforms. The goal for both of these is simple: make things as efficient as possible, maximizing the role that technology can play in simplifying common tasks.
Digital Process Automation (DPA)
a/k/a Intelligent Process Automation or Hyperautomation
DPA is a combination of tools and technologies that includes AI, business process software/automation, machine learning, and business management applications. As no single automation process can replace humans, DPA uses an amalgamation of whatever’s needed to streamline workflows and augment human performance.
In what will be a recurring theme for this article, we can say that this technology’s adoption has largely been driven by the surge in digital-first thinking that COVID has brought. All organizations are seeking efficiency and speed, and intelligent process automation helps meet these goals. By providing a real-time look at how the company is functioning, DPAs highlight ways to increase optimization and agility.
Digital process automation is often paired with digital twinning; this creates a detailed virtual model of the organization that can be used to forecast how changes in processes will affect the company.
Customer Data Platforms (CDPs)
CDPs collect data from multiple sources, organizing it, categorizing it, and making it available as needed across access points like tools and dashboards. This helps solve two problems: “dirty data” (i.e. data that’s incomplete or inaccurate) and data accessibility. Thus, we’re seeing leaders like Microsoft, Oracle, and SAP investing in customer data platforms. As businesses continue to experience the rapid proliferation of customer data from various channels, CDPs will make it possible to quickly retrieve high-quality data, supplying a growing network of business needs with data from an equally growing number of sources and transactions.
AI’s Ongoing Evolution
Next, let’s shift focus to AI, which is a wide field in itself. We’re seeing several growth areas continue to mature, and that will carry on throughout 2021. One of these areas is the democratization of AI; companies, governments, and organizations of all kinds and sizes have turned to AI to help them cope with pandemic-induced volatility. We’ve also seen AI emerge as an ally in the fight to halt the spread of disease (including COVID-19) by means of better vaccines or treatment plans. In such use cases, AI’s ability to speedily process vast amounts of information is crucial. And as the costs of high-powered computing lessen (and its availability grows), we can expect to see more entities benefit from AI.
Another interesting trend is the combination of IoT sensor data with AI processing technology. IoT devices are rich data sources, and we know how AI loves data; on the flip side, AI can be used to teach these devices to improve their performance. No wonder some people say IoT and AI are a perfect match; they have the potential to do great things together, and this is a space I’m watching eagerly.
Conversational AI is the third area to watch. We’re already used to AI-powered chatbots, but conversational AI takes this to the next level, adding a so-called ‘emotional layer’ to the rather dry chatbot experience. The goal is to give such programs the capacity to recognize emotional cues coming from their interlocutors and display a sort of empathy to the human users. Just as chatbots quickly have become the front-line personnel for customer service issues, conversational AI will revolutionize chatbots.
Finally, I’m just going to add digital twinning to the list of 2021’s key tech. We’ve already touched on digital twins in this article, and we’ve recently covered them in the Absolutdata blog as well. For more info, please see Using Digital Twins to Adjust to COVID’s New Normal.
Flavors of the Cloud: Hybrid, Distributed, and Edge Computing
The line between traditional and Cloud computing architectures has become rather fluid, and it’s quite common to see a blend of the two. In particular, expect to see more businesses looking into hybrid, distributed, and edge computing to meet their computational needs and provide greater flexibility. Here’s a quick rundown of what you need to know:
Hybrid computing mixes SaaS (Software as a Service, such as Microsoft Office 365, Google Workspace, etc.) and other Cloud-based solutions with on-prem tools. In some ways, hybrid offers the best of both worlds – the scalability and economy of the Cloud and the unique infrastructure configurability of on-premises computing. For businesses, a hybrid setup means being able to cope with large amounts of data while still managing privacy, compliance, and security needs. Once again, the COVID pandemic has accelerated this trend; we’ve seen Cloud-based meeting, collaboration, and remote work environments surge in popularity this year largely because of coronavirus restrictions.
In distributed Cloud computing, services are distributed to different locations while operations (including architecture, maintenance, delivery, etc.) remain with a central Cloud provider. This allows data centers to be located closer to end users and also helps with certain data/privacy regulations. Such a solution can be used as part of a hybrid Cloud architecture.
The Verge defines edge computing as “computing that’s done at or near the source of the data, instead of relying on the cloud at one of a dozen data centers to do all the work.” While Cloud-based computing comes with some performance and user experience drawbacks (i.e. latency/ perceived delays, speed/bandwidth, etc.) edge computing seeks to mitigate these by positioning information processing and collection geographically closer to users, which would reduce these drawbacks.
The implications for businesses are wide-ranging. Markets and Markets estimates that the edge computing market will grow from $3.6 billion in 2020 to $15.7 billion by 2025. Tech and non-tech businesses alike stand to gain from the growth of edge computing, as it removes some of the barriers associated with remote collaboration.
There is some overlap with hybrid, distributed, and edge computing, but each one is distinct enough to offer its own benefits. As these solve a number of problems for distributed teams and remote work – and bring some benefits to the budget – I think we’ll see more businesses turning to some mix of Cloud and traditional computing.
App Development & Innovation
This last group is something of a catch-all category, with one trend that’s really gaining ground and one that’s relatively new.
All web and mobile sites have two ‘ends’ – the front end, which manages the visual presentation and user experience, and the backend, which controls the behind-the-scenes operation. In headless technology, the separation between front and back ends is emphasized; thus, the same backend can power various customized SaaS applications. This development approach is economical, highly flexible, and supports easier integration – meaning it can be leveraged to solve many business problems, provide better customer/user experiences, and promote agility and innovation. It further democratizes custom apps and interfaces, so I expect more businesses to take advantage of it.
Internet of Behaviors (IoB)
We’re already familiar with AI-powered behavioral analytics, having seen their results in personalizing campaigns and messaging, identifying and meeting customer needs, and gaining a competitive edge in general. But what about the Internet of Behaviors?
Some have loosely defined a putative IoB as an Internet of Things with personal data added – essentially, connecting the stream of IoT device data with individuals’ behaviors and expressed thoughts. For more examples of IoB (and its potential uses and ramifications), see this CXO Today article.
Identified by Gartner as a key tech trend for 2021, the Internet of Behaviors presents a legal and ethical minefield that companies will have to navigate. That being said, the same Gartner report estimates that by 2025, 50% of the global population will have at least one IoB program in their lives.
Suffice it to say that there are pros and cons to IoB; businesses should be aware of both early in its lifecycle.
Are You Ready for 2021?
2020 was an unexpected year, but one thing that it did accomplish was pushing various technologies forward. As we prepare for the rest of the 2020s, let’s see how these technologies continue to evolve.