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Outward Focus
TONY BARNES, managing principal-metals, at Crowe Consulting Group, outlines how metals companies’ tech investments have evolved
Question letter Q

What are the biggest trends you’re seeing in metals technology this year?

Barnes: We’ve been surveying metals executives for the past 10 years as part of our annual technology in metals survey. This year, we saw a shift in companies’ investment focus toward their customers and employees. Historically, tech investments were primarily internally focused with the goal of controlling costs and improving operational efficiencies. Those factors remain important, but they no longer seem to be the driver for new tech investments. Instead, executives are focusing on meeting customer expectations and improving employee experience.

Headshot of Tony Barnes
Question letter Q

Do you believe that shift is a result of the pandemic?

A: Yes and no. The pandemic certainly accelerated the drive toward focusing on the customer. As supply chains were disrupted and traditional delivery methods were tested, everyone needed to make sure they had plenty of options going forward. Additionally, employees had a moment to step back and reevaluate their own positions. But we saw a move toward customer and employee experience taking a major role even before COVID-19. Metals companies were increasingly planning e-commerce portals, for example, and the need to attract and retain top talent was a theme I recall hearing from clients and at industry conferences before the pandemic. The metals industry now is using technology to adapt to the world we all live in, where our entire at-home experience for ordering is seamless, efficient and tailored to our personal needs.

Question letter Q

What trends are you seeing regarding ERP this year, and how do those trends compare with years before?

A: Core business applications such as enterprise resource planning (ERP) and customer relationship management (CRM) still account for the majority of technology investments among the companies we surveyed, with 62 percent of respondents saying they are either upgrading an existing system or planning for a new ERP system this year. One constant over the past 10 years of the survey has been the move away from custom-developed platforms to metals-industry-specific ERP platforms. Finding a stable ERP platform that can accommodate the unique nature of the metals industry and allow for continual improvement is a must-have.
Question letter Q

Is it accurate to say employees still are most comfortable using Excel as their default “data analysis” tool?

A: It is accurate, but even this is changing. Over the past four surveys, we’ve seen the popularity of Microsoft Excel fall. In 2018, 81 percent of nontechnical staff named it the top business intelligence (BI) tool; compare that with our most recent survey, where only 58 percent deemed it as the top BI tool. This likely is due to an increased availability and use of business analytics tools within industry-focused ERP platforms. Such tools provide the opportunity for multiple contributors, both technical and nontechnical, to tap into powerful insights and data analytics to make informed decisions. Microsoft Power BI is a great example of this. When companies use BI tools consistently, they generally gain a definitive edge over the competition.
Question letter Q

What advice do you have for metals leaders about cybersecurity and preventing ransomware attacks?

A: It sounds basic, but start by taking inventory of your systems and data. What are your systems, and where is your data housed? You have to know what you have before you know how to protect it. Next, acknowledge that you’re a metals company, not a cybersecurity company. It’s OK to ask for help and to bring on a partner who specializes in assessing the state of your vulnerabilities. Lastly, take the time to educate your employees about threats and basic safeguards to protect against attacks. Too many of these attacks can be traced back to employees who might not have done something careless had they simply received the proper education and preventive training. Readers can download the 10th annual Technology in Metals survey at crowe.com/services/consulting/metals.

Crowe LLP, Oakbrook Terrace, Illinois, 800/599-2304, crowe.com