The Big Four: challenges facing today’s operational leaders

Picture this. The year is 2013. You’re sat in your office, looking out on a floor of desks, all of which are occupied by members of staff. On every desk is some form of freebie-stress ball, branded with a random business’s logo, which was likely picked up from a recent trade show. You and the team around you rely on man-power to complete most of your daily tasks. Perhaps below your floor there is a warehouse with an assembly-line reliant on manual power to complete activities required. 

Flash forward to your working life today. I would imagine it is quite far-removed from the 2013 picture we just painted – perhaps you’re in your home office, that warehouse we discussed still exists, but it now powered by automated technology, overseen by production managers and technical support staff. 

There is no doubt that working life has drastically changed over the past couple of years. With the COVID-19 pandemic kickstarting a remote-working revolution, to the changing landscape as leaders navigate current recessionary pressures. But as those changes have occurred, so too have new challenges appeared. 

1: Talent Shortages

Finding IT talent, particularly the most in-demand software developers and analysts, is becoming increasingly difficult. The rise of remote and hybrid working patterns, alongside the monumentous digital transformation journeys many organisations have gone through over the past couple of years, has led to a need for specialist skills. 

In Monster’s global Future of Work 2022 report, it was reported that 87% of employees struggle to find the IT talent they require. Because of this skills-shortage, hiring costs and the standard of the benefits package now expected by new recruits has increased. 

But leaders must also take into consideration the global and economic factors impacting their recruitment efforts. Inflationary pressures, the cost-of-living crisis, current recessionary woes and the lasting impact from the pandemic. All issues effecting both the employee and the employer. And all issues that come as industries begin to recognise the operational efficiencies, they can make by introducing more IT and engineering elements into the business. 

In a survey from Gartner Inc, it was suggested that IT executives see the talent shortage as the most significant barrier to adoption of up to 64% of emerging technologies, compared with just 4% in 2020. A lack of talent availability was cited far more often than other barriers, such as implementation cost (29%) or security risk (7%).

As talent shortages become a reality, the creation and growth of digital platforms essential to flourishing in a competitive marketplace also slows – making difficulties in recruitment directly impact on a company’s bottom line and creating an exponential demand for operational and IT resources. The need to bridge the gap, find the right talent and stick to budgets is complicated to say the least.

2: Digital transformation

Most organisations nowadays are on or in the middle of some kind of digital transformation journey. Whether that is automating processes, improving customer experience and / or moving to a centralised system. But budgetary constraints mean that even those who know exactly what their transformation journey should result in – including what stops they need to make on the way – the budgets they have to use don’t facilitate the full journey. 

When you also throw into the mix a lack of training and employee engagement, significant blockers to transformation can present themselves. This can only be overcome with sufficient time investment into teams – any new technology and processes will always be accompanied by a steep learning curve, so having a strong knowledge transfer plan in place is necessary. 

The other difficulty which must be considered within transformation journeys is a rushed testing or proof of concept period. There is a nod here again to time investment within the team – time if always needed to allow a true exploration and examination of any new technologies and processes.  

3: Impact of recession

In the UK, inflation has remained at a 40-year high, reaching 10.5% in December 2022, with the Bank of England responding by increasing interested rates to 3.5% – the highest level in 14-years. And it is predicted that in 2023 the UK economy will shrink by 0.6% according to the IMF. But in business terms, this comes down to one focus point – doing more with less. 

When business budgets are impacted, the first areas to be squeezed are often hiring new staff or removing tech support for digital transformation projects. Looking at ways to streamline and / or automate processes internally to improve efficiency and free up team capacity should be considered by all leaders across 2023 if they are going to maintain their commitment to driving positive transformation.

4: Visibility & autonomy

With the above considered, it’s more important than ever for leaders to have a clear picture and view of what is changing across the organisation. This must not be confused with micro-managing teams, but more to be able to identify bottle-necks within processes, review resourcing requirements and ultimately assess the impact on their customers. 

Too often organisations are working with old legacy systems that don’t facilitate this view, and so leaders end up losing site of these important areas. It may become clouded to leaders as to who is dealing with what, communication lines become blurred across channels and work streams become unmanageable. 

Having a clear view of operations and the autonomy to change it using a centralised platform for all work streams will become more and more imperative. Using one system also makes it much easier to get actionable insights on metrics such as average ticket completion time or customer satisfaction score.

There are clearly a number of different areas that will affect the operational and IT leaders of today’s businesses. But focusing in on talent, transformation, economic impacts to the business and having a clear view of workload are priority areas those leaders will need to focus on should they wish to make a meaningful difference.

James Hall

James Hall is the current CEO at Enate. Prior to this, they were with Axis Workshops, Emergence Partners Ltd, and Capita. James has also enjoyed a short period of reflection. Their previous company was IBM, where they worked as a Client Solutions Executive. James has also been with Accenture and Genfour.

James Hall has an MBA from London Business School and a Masters in Chemical Engineering from Imperial College London.

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