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It starts with thinking deeply about the wants and needs of your customers, innovation leaders say.

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These days, it’s not enough to offer a good product or service. To please today’s customers, you need to deliver a flawless digital experience.

The ever-quickening pace of technological change continues to have profound effects on nearly every industry. It’s turned some industries, such as retail, on its head. Whether it’s how companies interact with customers, how they handle their supply chain or what they do with the data they collect, no company can operate in this era without considering how technology plays a role.

But what can all industries learn from this disruption? How can companies leverage new technologies like artificial intelligence or blockchain to differentiate themselves in a crowded and challenging marketplace?

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Armughan Ahmad is the managing partner and president of digital and technology solutions at KPMG in Canada, and Alexander Peh is vice-president, technology and operations at Royal Bank of Canada (RBC). As two executives who live and breathe innovation, they were eager to discuss how companies can thrive in this era of unprecedented change.

What can companies learn from the disruption of retail?

Armughan Ahmad: We are now in a customer experience age, as exemplified through Uber, Airbnb, Amazon, and Netflix. Every corporation needs to think about the new demographic that they will be serving – in particular, millennials and Generation Z. Weʼre also seeing people coming to Canada from China and India whose experiences with banking and retail are solely through their phone. If youʼre a retailer, a bank, an insurance company, a telecom provider, you have to think about your current and future customer demographics, the experiences that they want and how your company will deliver them.

Alexander Peh: Retail didn’t get disrupted. Bricks and mortar in retail got disrupted and it accelerated online e-commerce. The expectations, wants, and needs of customers have changed significantly faster and more extremely than people predicted. When I think about retail disruption, it was about customers saying: “I want to do things from my home, from my couch, at 3 in the morning.” For RBC, I think it serves as a staunch reminder that we need to constantly be adding more value to the everyday lives of our clients in an increasingly connected world. So weʼre being proactive in redefining the role that we play in our clientsʼ lives. We see ourselves as not just as a service provider, but a partner. We want to create experiences, value and convenience.

What technologies should companies be paying attention to?

Ahmad: Data will be increasingly critical so organizations need technology that can effectively collect, analyze and manage massive amounts of information. To do so, we will increasingly need to leverage artificial intelligence (AI), edge computing to capture IoT (Internet of Things) sensors and 5G technologies. Over the next few years, there are going to be close to 27 billion devices that are going to come online and start generating data. With this exponential growth in data, it will be critical that organizations protect the integrity of the information. At KPMG, our data analytics, cybersecurity, privacy and cloud-based connected enterprise solutions are helping Canadian and multinational companies effectively leverage this massive growth in data while also earning the trust of their customers.

Peh: With AI, thereʼs an opportunity to improve decision-making and personalization. Companies can leverage predictive data to personalize things like marketing campaigns and products. Another area that weʼre looking at is around communication. A lot of companies are going to be leveraging AI and chatbots to simulate a live-chat experience, which allows customers to have an intelligent conversation 24/7 with a company or brand. We at RBC also genuinely believe that blockchain is a transformational technology. It provides us an opportunity to improve things like the speed of payments, reduce complexity and lower costs. It’s a relatively immature technology that we think has massive transformational potential.

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What does the adoption of these technologies mean for workers in Canada?

Ahmad: As the digital economy grows, new skills will be required and it will be imperative that Canada develop a deep pool of future-ready, homegrown talent. I think the potential is here for the Canadian economy to add tens of thousands of highly skilled, highly paid jobs if we do this right. To deliver, we need to re-examine our education system and open new doors to tech careers that are combined with liberal arts programs to drive exponential thinking. In the future where humans and AI work side by side the EQ (emotional quotient) will be as important as IQ. Continuous learning will be the norm. Our new Ignition Centre in Vancouver is designed for organizations to send individuals and teams to learn, test ideas and develop new solutions. Participants will have access to global thought leaders, design thinking and problem-solving methodologies, data analytics tools, and digital transformation services across multiple collaborative spaces.

Peh: I agree with the theory that the tech community is massively overestimating the level of change in the short term and massively underestimating the level of change in the long term. We are seeing a shift around the world in the skills required at work – changes that will keep on growing. At RBC, we are looking to refocus our people on high impact, high value work and automate mundane processes.

Are Canadian companies resistant to digital transformation?

Peh: Canada is largely community-centric which I believe is reflected in our way of doing business. I think this has resulted in the country having a tremendous track record of entrepreneurship and technology advancement. I donʼt necessarily know whether weʼre embracing it as quickly or with the same tenacity as our peers south of the border or across the pond in Europe and Asia. But I donʼt think itʼs out of a disbelief that our customersʼ needs, wants and expectations are changing. From an RBC perspective, we ensure that we’re investing in Canadian companies to help fuel the economy. We recognize the importance of partnering with great companies – that means consulting companies, vendors, fintech startups – that will ultimately help us meet and exceed our customers’ expectations

Ahmad: Our research has shown that Canadian CEOs recognize their industries are changing and they want to be in front of this by being the disruptors themselves. The issue isn’t really about resistance to digital, it is more about how to implement. For example, how far, at what cost, and how to transform at speed without impairing normal operations. What we say to clients is they need to move away from a conservative mindset. You can’t be an incremental disruptor. You need to invest in order to realize results with exponential value.

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How do companies move forward?

Peh: I think it’s important to take a step back and have a very long, hard look at the relationship with your customers. You need to constantly re-evaluate the relationship with your customers to truly understand their wants and needs as a client. These wants and needs will evolve as new technologies emerge and should shift how you do business. I believe that this disruption is an opportunity and that some of the most successful companies are going to be the ones who embrace it. RBC for example is a people business and that’s never going to change. But how we interact with our clients will advance with technology and this gives us the opportunity to delight them through these ever-evolving digital experiences.

Ahmad: On one side, companies need to innovate, and on the other side, they have cost and agility challenges. And thatʼs the struggle today, and it will be the struggle tomorrow. But it’s about thinking holistically about the journey and then implementing step by step. We have a connected enterprise offering, which has front-office, middle-office and back-office components. At the front office, youʼre thinking about your customers. What experiences do they want? We have solutions that help the client map the entire process. Then you have to update your middle office – your supply chain, retail operations and the way you provide inventory. But thatʼs still not good enough. Companies also need to be customer-centric in their back office, where their traditional finance, HR and IT functions all need to be connected. Keeping your customer in mind while evaluating your current systems, will help you identify which steps to take first in the digital transformation journey.


Advertising feature produced by Globe Content Studio. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.

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