Jeff Eckel, Director at e2open
Industries worldwide continue to feel the impacts of the cost-of-living crisis. Retail is being hit hard by plummeting consumer confidence, with a recent report finding a fall in sales for eight consecutive months across Europe.
Supply constraints and constant fluctuations in demand only add to an already challenging landscape. The aftershocks of the pandemic are still being felt, as well as increased geopolitical trade conflicts. But there is cause for hope. With Christmas less than 100 days away and Black Friday on the horizon, there is an opportunity for retailers to capitalise on the critical holiday period and bolster sales. Businesses with flexible and scalable operations gain a competitive edge when they ensure products reach shelves on time or before schedule. Visibility and flexibility will be integral for supply chain leaders across networks to meet the challenges – and reap the rewards – of this year’s Golden Quarter.
Predicting seasonal surges
By now, retail organisations have revenue forecasts for the fast-approaching sales season. Whether brick-and-mortar, online, or a combination of both, the supply chain process remains the same – identify finished goods suppliers and place orders ahead of time to have the correct quantity of the right product at the right time.
In an ideal world, these suppliers would have anticipated the orders they will receive and forecast this within a supply plan, allowing enough time to produce the finished goods and ship – or, better yet, on an even earlier timeline for distributors and other sales channels.
In most cases, suppliers outsource the building, assembly, and production of the goods they sell, whether that be to diversify supply or take advantage of trade agreements and tax advantages. However, outsourcing often comes at a steep cost and creates issues around visibility, quality, and control. After all, suppliers will prioritise production speed over visibility into contracted operations.
Building this level of visibility can seem daunting for both parties. Yet, when retailers and suppliers increase collaboration and transparency, they will mitigate risk and capitalise on all the Golden Quarter offers. So, what does that look like in practice?
Agility is a must-have, not nice-to-have
Greater agility across operations directly correlates to great customer service. Consumers will return to a brand if products arrive on time or ahead of schedule. Agility is also a helpful tool when rising to meet the competition. For instance, if a retailer’s biggest competitor announces a new product for the holiday season, operations and decisions should be made quickly to keep pace accordingly. In this scenario, most businesses would adjust their forecasted revenue to expect fewer product sales and, consequentially, for the supplier to change the plans and orders already set in motion.
On the other hand, new protectionist trade regulations and policies require finished goods suppliers to quickly diversify their suppliers to acquire a critical supply of parts or products to fulfil orders on time. When suppliers experience challenges with specific parts or material shortages, they need the ability to predict, monitor, and react.
Fortunately, weaving new data sources into their networks and combining disparate information with real-time insights will give retail supply chain leaders the visibility they need to act quickly. This enhanced view of data requires greater collaboration between retailers and their suppliers – as well as their suppliers further up the chain – on orders, inventory, and forecasts.
Ultimately, greater visibility means greater opportunity to diversify suppliers and meet tight production deadlines – vital to minimise risk, fulfil orders, and remain profitable during peak seasons. And when AI is brought into the mix, this brings even greater opportunities to optimise operations.
Business decisions backed by real-time insights
It’s tricky to address risks without a clear picture of potential challenges on the road ahead. An end-to-end view across the supply chain drives collaboration between suppliers. It ensures quick responses to near-term supply and demand signals, meaning businesses can address potential inventory issues before they snowball into more significant problems across the network. When many retailers still act reactively, not proactively, such visibility provides supply chain leaders with a clear competitive edge.
Artificial intelligence and IoT have transformed decision-making processes. Thanks to these new technologies, it’s possible to pull together multiple datasets that automate manual tasks and workflows. AI can select the best carrier for every shipment, calculate routes, and adjust replenishment frequency based on historical fluctuations in demand. It can even identify areas that would benefit from supplier diversification, helping to take the pressure off busy retailer supply chain managers.
With Halloween, Black Friday, and, of course, Christmas on the horizon, retailers can gain a competitive edge by leveraging logistics plans that are both flexible and scalable. The impact of disruptive events such as extreme weather and global conflict can be mitigated through platforms that provide end-to-end visibility and collaboration across the entire network. Employing new technologies now will offer short-term gains and long-term benefits as predictive algorithms address anticipated peaks in demand. When retailers put communication and visibility at the forefront of their supply strategies, they will be well-equipped to deliver on targets in the critical period ahead.
‘Tis the Season to be Wary: How to Protect Your Business from Holiday Season Hacking
The holiday season will soon be in full swing, but cybercriminals aren’t known for their holiday spirit. While consumers have traditionally been the prime targets for cybercriminals during the holiday season – lost in a frenzy of last-minute online shopping and unrelenting ads – companies are increasingly falling victim to calculated cyber attacks.
Against this backdrop of relaxed vigilance and festive distractions, cybercriminals are set to deploy everything from ransomware to phishing scams, all designed to capitalise on the holiday haze. Businesses that fail to prioritise their cybersecurity could end up embracing not so much “tidings of comfort and joy” as unwanted data breaches and service outages well into 2024.
With the usual winter disruptions about to kick into overdrive, opportunistic hackers are aiming to exploit organisational turmoil this holiday season. Industry research consistently indicates a substantial spike in cyber attacks targeting businesses during holidays, particularly when coupled with the following factors:
- Employee Burnout: Employee burnout is rife around the holidays. Trying to complete major projects or hit targets before the end of the year can require long hours and intense workweeks. Overwrought schedules combined with the seasonal stressors of Christmas shopping, family politics, travel expenses, hosting duties etc., can lead to a less effective and exhausted workforce.
- Vacation Days: The holiday season is a popular time for employees to use up their vacation days and paid time off. This means offices are often emptier than usual during late December and early January. With fewer people working on-site, critical security tasks are neglected and gaps in security widen.
- Network Strain: The holidays also mark a period of network strain due to increased traffic and network requests. Staff shortages also reduce organisational response capacity if systems are compromised. The result is company networks that are understaffed and overwhelmed.
Seasonal Cyber Attacks
There are many ways bad actors look to exploit system vulnerabilities and human errors to breach defences this time of year. But rather than relying solely on sophisticated hacking techniques, most holiday-fueled cyber attacks succeed through tried and true threat vectors:
- Holiday-Themed Phishing and Smishing Campaigns: Emails and texts impersonating parcel carriers with tracking notifications contain fraudulent links, deploying malware or capturing account credentials once clicked by unwitting recipients trying to track deliveries. A momentary slip-up is all it takes to unleash malware payloads granting complete network access.
- Fake Charity Schemes: Malicious links masquerading as holiday philanthropy efforts compromise business accounts when donated to.
- Remote Access Exploits: External connectivity to internal networks comes with the territory of the season. However, poorly configured cloud apps and public Wi-Fi access points create openings for criminals to intercept company data from inadequately protected employee devices off-site.
- Ransomware Presents: Empty offices combined with delayed threat detection gives innovative extortion malware time to wrap itself around entire company systems and customer data before unveiling a not so jolly ransom note on Christmas morning.
Without proper precautions, the impact from misdirected clicks or downloads can quickly spiral across business servers over the holidays, leading to widespread data breaches and stolen customer credentials.
Essential Steps to Safeguard Systems
While eliminating all risks remains unlikely and tight budgets preclude launching entirely new security initiatives this holiday season, businesses can deter threats and address seasonal shortcomings through several key actions:
Prioritise Core Software Updates
Hardening network infrastructure is the first line of defence this holiday season. With many software products reaching end-of-life in December, it is critical to upgrade network architectures and prioritise core software updates to eliminate known vulnerabilities. Segmenting internal networks and proactively patching software can cut off preferred access routes for bad actors, confining potential breaches when hacking attacks surge.
Cultivate a Culture of Cybersecurity Awareness
Cybersecurity awareness training makes employees more resilient to rising social engineering campaigns and phishing links that increase during the holidays. Refreshing employees on spotting suspicious emails can thwart emerging hacking techniques. With more distractions and time out of the office this season, vigilance is more important than ever! Train your staff to “never” directly click a link from an email or text. Even if they are expecting a delivery they should still go directly to the known trusted source.
Manage Remote Access Proactively
Criminals aggressively pursue any vulnerabilities exposed during the holiday period to intercept financial and customer data while defences lie dormant. Therefore, businesses should properly configure cloud apps and remote networks before the holiday season hits. This will minimise pathways for data compromise when employees eventually disconnect devices from company systems over the holidays.
Mandate Multifactor Authentication (MFA)
Most successful attacks stem from compromised user credentials. By universally mandating MFA across all access points this season, retailers add critical layers of identity verification to secure systems. With MFA fatigue setting in over holidays, have backup verification methods ready to deter credential stuffing.
Prepare to Respond, Not Just Prevent
Despite precautions, holiday disasters can and do occur. Businesses need response plans for periods of disruption and reduced capacity. Have emergency communications prepared for customers and partners in case an attack disrupts operations. The time to prepare is before vacation schedules complicate incident response. It’s important to know how and when to bring in the right expertise if a crisis emerges.
By following best practices to prevent cybersecurity standards slipping before peak winter months, companies can enjoy the holidays without becoming victims of calculated cyber attacks. With swift and decisive action there is still time for businesses to prepare defences against holiday season hacks.
Transforming unified comms to future-proof your business
By Jonathan Wright, Director of Products and Operations at GCX
Telephony is not usually the first thing SMBs think about when it comes to their digital transformation. However, push and pull factors are bringing it up the priority list and leading them to rethink their approach.
Indeed, it is just one year until PSTN (the copper-based telephone network) will be switched off by BT Openreach. With a recent survey showing that as many as 88% of UK businesses rely on PSTN, many organisations’ hands are being forced to review their communications ahead of the deadline.
But even if this change for some is being forced upon them, the benefits of building a more future-proofed unified communications strategy far outweigh the associated challenges. Nearly three-quarters of employees in UK SMEs now work partly or fully remotely, indeed the highest percentage of any G7 country. Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) telephone systems are much better suited to distributed workforces as the phone line is assigned on a user basis, rather than to a fixed location.
And with more companies now integrating AI capabilities to augment their products and services – like Microsoft Teams Pro which leverages OpenAI for improved transcription, automated notes generation and recommended actions – the productivity-boosting benefits for users are only improving.
Making the right choice
For those companies that are seizing the opportunity to change their unified comms in 2024, what should they consider when making their decision?
- Choose platforms that will boost user adoption – User adoption will make or break the rollout of a new IT project. So due consideration should be given to what products or services will have the path of least resistance with employees. Choosing a service or graphical user interface (GUI) users are already used to, like Zoom or MS Teams, is likely to result in a higher adoption rate than a net new service.
- Embrace innovation with AI capabilities – While some of the services leveraging AI and Large Language Model (LLM) to enhance their capabilities are more expensive than traditional VoIP, the productivity gains could offer an attractive return on investment for many small businesses. Claiming back the time spent typing up meeting notes, or improving the response time to customer calls with automatically-generated actions, will both have tangible benefits to the business. That said, companies should consider what level of service makes sense to their business; they may not need the version with all the bells and whistles to make significant efficiency gains.
- Bring multiple services under a single platform – The proliferation of IT tools is becoming an increasing challenge in many businesses; it creates silos that hamper collaboration, leaves employees feeling overwhelmed by the sheer number of communications channels to manage, and leads to mounting costs on the business. Expanding the use of existing platforms, or retiring multiple solutions by bringing their features together in one new platform, benefits the business and user experience alike.
- Automate onboarding to reduce the burden on IT – Any changes to unified comms should aim to benefit all of the different stakeholders – and that includes the IT team tasked with implementing and managing it. Choosing platforms which support automated onboarding and activation, for example, will reduce the burden on IT when provisioning new tenants, as well as with the ongoing policy management. What’s more, it reduces the risk of human error when configuring the setup to improve the overall security. Or, in the case of Microsoft Teams, even negates the need for Microsoft PowerShell.
- Consider where you work – Employees are not only working between home and the office more. Since the pandemic, more people are embracing the digital nomad lifestyle, while others are embracing the opportunity to work more closely with clients on-site or at their offices. This should be considered in unified comms planning as those companies with employees working outside the UK will need to choose a geo-agnostic service.
- Stay secure – Don’t let security and data protection be an afterthought. Opt for platforms leveraging authentication protocols, strong encryption, and security measures to safeguard sensitive information and support compliance.
Making the right switch
As many small businesses start planning for changes in their telephony in 2024 as the PSTN switch-off approaches, it is important that take the time to explore how the particular requirements of their organisations and how the changes to their communications could better support their new working practices and boost productivity.
Will your network let down your AI strategy?
Rob Quickenden, CTO at Cisilion
As companies start to evaluate how they can use AI effectively, there is a clear need to ensure your network is up to the challenges of AI first. AI applications are going to require your data to be easily accessible and your network will need to be able to handle the huge compute needs of these new applications. It will also need to be secure enough at all points of access for the different applications to end users’ different devices. If your network isn’t reliable, readily available and secure it is likely going to fail.
In Cisco’s 2023 Networking Report 41% of networking professional across 2,500 global companies said that providing secure access to applications distributed across multiple cloud platforms is their key challenge, followed by gaining end-to-end visibility into network performance and security (37%).
So, what can you do to make your network AI ready?
First, you need to see AI as part of your digital transformation, then you need to look at where you need it and where you don’t. Jumping on the bandwagon and implementing AI for the sake of it isn’t the way forward. You need to have a clear strategy in place about where and how you are going to use AI. Setting up an AI taskforce to look at all aspects of your AI strategy is a good first step. They need to be able to identify how AI can help transform your business processes and free up time to focus on your core business. At the same time, they need to make sure your infrastructure can handle your AI needs.
Enterprise networks and IT landscapes are growing more intricate every day. The demand for seamless connectivity has skyrocketed as businesses expand their digital footprint and hybrid working continues. The rise of cloud services, the Internet of Things (IoT), and data-intensive applications have placed immense pressure on traditional network infrastructures and AI will only increase this burden. AI requires much higher levels of compute power too. The challenge lies in ensuring consistent performance, security, and reliability across a dispersed network environment.
Use hybrid and multi-cloud to de-silo operations
According to Gartner’s predictions, by 2025, 51% of IT spending will shift to the cloud. Underscoring the importance of having a robust and adaptable network infrastructure that can seamlessly integrate with cloud services. This is even more important with AI as it needs to access data from different locations and sources across your business to be successful. For example, AI often requires data from different sources to train models and make predictions. A company that wants to develop an AI system to predict customer churn may need to access data from multiple sources such as customer demographics, purchase history and social media activity.
IT teams need to make sure that they are using hybrid cloud and multi-cloud to de-silo operations to bring together network and security controls and visibility and allow for easy access to data. Where businesses use multiple cloud providers or have some data on-premise, they need to be reviewing how that data will be used and so how to access it across departments.
Install the best security and network monitoring
It’s clear that as we develop AI for good, there is also a darker side weaponizing AI to create more sophisticated cyber-attacks. Businesses need end-to-end visibility into their network performance and security and to be able to provide secure access to applications distributed across multiple cloud platforms. This means having effective monitoring tools in place and the right layers of security – not only at the end user level but also across your network at all access points.
Being able to review and test the performance of your SaaS based applications will also be key to the success of your AI solutions. AI requires apps to work harder and faster so tasting their speed, scalability and stability, and ensuring they are up to the job and can perform well under varying workloads is important.
Secure Access Service Edge
The best way to ensure your network security is as good as it can be is to simplify your tools and create consistency by using Secure Access Service Edge (SASE). This is an architecture that delivers converged network and security as service capabilities including SD-WAN and cloud native security functions such as secure web gateways, cloud access security brokers, firewall as-a-service, and zero-trust network access. SASE delivers wide area network and security controls as a cloud computing service directly to the source of connection rather than at the data centre which will protect your network and users more effectively.
If you haven’t already, extending your SD-WAN connectivity consistently across multiple clouds to automate cloud-agnostic connectivity and optimise the application experience is a must. It will enable your organisation to securely connect users, applications and data across multiple locations while providing improved performance, reliability and scalability. SD-WAN also simplifies the management of WANs by providing centralised control and visibility over the entire network.
As we head towards the new era of AI, cloud is the new data centre, Internet is the new network, and cloud offerings will dominate applications. By making sure your network is AI ready, by adopting a cloud-centric operating model, having a view of global Internet health and the performance of top SaaS applications, IT teams will be able to implement their company’s AI strategy successfully.