With hope growing that there may be an end in sight to the Covid-19 pandemic, businesses are beginning to reflect on what worked, and what didn’t, in the face of the most disruptive world event most of us have seen in our lives so far.
What we learned for certain is that digital transformation – the ongoing process of digitization and data-driven strategy and growth – has been essential in navigating these challenging times. Organizations with a mature digital transformation agenda fared far better than those where this investment had not been prioritized. This was true for multinational corporations that were able to quickly switch to remote working, as well as restaurants that had the tools in place to enable online ordering and delivery.
The challenge many companies are now facing is to build on this good work that has been done as we move into the post-covid era. For those who were less well prepared, it may be to play catch-up and ensure that they are prepared when the next disruption emerges – whether it comes from a future pandemic or their competition.
How can digital transformation help companies in the age of COVID-19?
This was the subject of a discussion I recently took part in, organized by The Economist, which included Aaron Levie, CEO of Box, Archie Deskus, Intel’s global CIO, Sanjeevan Bala, Chief Data Officer at media company ITV, and Chet Patel, Chief Commercial Officer at BT.
It started with a discussion of how all of the major tech trends that had been the subject of our attention before covid – artificial intelligence (AI), internet of things (IoT), cloud computing, data analytics, and so on – were essential tools for organizations attempting to keep their products and services available during the pandemic.
For example, Cloud earned its keep, with tools like Google Suite, Office 365, Box, and Slack playing a critical part in enabling a swift move to work-from-home.
Normalising remote working
One seemingly counter-intuitive point that all of the panel agreed on was that digital transformation has actually become easier during the pandemic. Although this may seem surprising, it boiled down to the fact that acceptance and buy-in have become far easier to achieve. As Box CEO Levie put it, “It’s easier because it’s out of necessity, as opposed to out of discretion or out of vision. It used to be you had to go and pitch these projects … and everyone had to have a similar view of the future as to why this was important. Now the future is here, and of sheer survival, you have to prioritize how you’re going to get to your customers digitally, how your employees are going to work digitally.”
When considering what made some companies more prepared than others for the switch to remote working, we discussed how, for many, this had involved “bending the rules” around internal processes and governance. Again, out of necessity, stop-gap measures were quickly put in place to accommodate new models of both individual working and collaboration between teams.
What is likely to follow now is a period of “normalization” as processes are adapted, meaning the benefits achieved via these changes can be effective in the mid-to-long-term. BT Commercial Officer Patel said, “Now everyone’s taking stock and thinking – we’re going to be in this pattern for some time – how do we normalize this way of working? How do we get ready for the long run, and how’s tech going to help us?”
Rethinking how we provide digital services
Another topic that we explored is where the line is drawn between using technology simply to speed up existing processes, or switch them to remote, and using it to genuinely do business in new and innovative ways.
Intel’s CIO Deskus says, “Not every single stream of digital transformation is one or the other. It’s a combination, and most organizations need both.
“Not everything we are going to do in digital transformation is a new business model – a new way to go to market. Some of it is also going to be about enabling our organizations to work differently and modernize some of the capabilities we have.”
This indicates that investing in both modes of change should be part of any strategy that will really generate effective transformation. The impetus is on organizations to invest in technology and transformation both as a way of positioning themselves as a leader in their field and to drive efficiency across their operations.
In terms of non-technological leadership capabilities that have helped organizations survive and, in some cases, grow during the pandemic, the ability to effectively manage risk was ranked as highly important. This will only become more true as we adapt post-covid. While the pandemic in ongoing and companies are mostly working reactively to mitigate serious risks to business and health, there’s little appetite for taking on unnecessary risk. As the situation normalizes and we (hopefully) see the back of the mortal risk to life, our attention will once again turn to opportunities and the risk/reward balancing act that is always part of business. Ensuring this is done in a measured way, in-line with the responsibilities of leadership in a post-covid environment, is essential.
“It’s that careful balancing,” says ITV’s CDO Bala, “yes, it’s a pandemic, yes, it’s a black swan event, but no CEO is going to be leading an organization that, through this pandemic, was slightly careless or slightly risky in terms of its risk profile.”
Reducing friction for the customer
The ultimate lesson, however, that we should take forward from the pandemic, according to Levie, is that the real advantage technology offers is that it allows us to more effectively and efficiently deliver products and services to customers. He says, “I think what this environment has taught us is – what digital was really intended for in the first place – is your customers just want fewer steps between them and your services.
“What this environment has taught all businesses is that if there’s friction between you and your customers – and that could mean manual steps like Fedex-ing documents, the time it takes to get products delivered – that friction is going to mean your customers go somewhere else.
“So what we’ve learned is … the ultimate meaning of digital revolution is you can get your products to your customers faster, and get your employees able to be as productive as possible.”
You can listen to the full conversation, Rise or Retreat: The Digital Transformation Imperative, which also covers cybersecurity and examples of best practice the panelists oversaw at their own organizations, on demand here.