COVID-19: Pressing Fast Forward on Digital Transformation
The global scale and impact of COVID 19 means that the year 2020 will have a special place in history alongside other major, global events like two World Wars, the Spanish flu, the great depression and the global financial crisis in 2008. It will literally be remembered as ‘the year the earth stood still’.
While that can be said for the physical world – global aviation being brought to a virtual standstill, people ‘locked down’ at home for weeks or months at a time, city centres being left virtually empty, businesses closing down – the same can’t be said for the digital world.
In fact – in terms of global, digital transformation – COVID-19 has proved to be the equivalent of ‘pressing the fast forward button’ and propelling us into the future. More accurately, COVID-19 has made the future arrive in the present a bit more quickly than it would have otherwise done.
The reason I like to put it that way is because digital technology, underpinned by increasing connectivity, has been around us for a while and changing all aspects of our lives whether that be at work or in our daily lives. Where would we be without smartphones for example? Before COVID 19 – when we all used to commute – if you looked around a train carriage, nearly every single person would have a smartphone in their hands and would be browsing the internet, reading a book or listening to music.
In terms of global, digital transformation, COVID-19 has proved to be the equivalent of ‘pressing the fast forward button’ and propelling us into the future.
I bought my first CD player in 1990, consigning my beloved vinyl record collection to the loft. My CD collection now sits next to it – and has done for the last five years. That means that vinyl records were a thing for about a hundred years, whereas CD’s only lasted twenty five. As COVID 19 has effectively ‘left shifted’ the future, that trend is only going to accelerate.
For those of us in business, COVID 19 represented a crisis that we had to manage. We re-organised our manufacturing teams into shifts to create ‘employee bubbles’ to keep them safe whilst continuing to meet commitments to Customers as best we could. We sent our office staff home and asked them to continue to work remotely as best as they could. In some cases, we furloughed our staff to protect their livelihoods as well as their health. That’s what businesses are good at – managing a crisis, limiting the damage to their staff, their Customers and their shareholders and plotting a path to recovery – to some kind of ‘new normal’ that recognises the business environment might have changed forever.
For me, diligently managing a crisis and transitioning to a ‘new normal’ way of doing business, and recognising the unprecedented opportunity presented by COVID 19 ‘left shifting’ the future into the present, are two fundamentally different business leadership mind sets. One might lead to some businesses surviving COVID 19 as a result of sensible management action, whereas the other will lead to some businesses positively thriving as a consequence of it.
There is a word that has become very fashionable in (particularly) big businesses these days and that is ‘governance’. Good governance is what will cause well run businesses to survive COVID 19.
It will be those businesses that are able to unlock the collective imagination of their organisations that will thrive rather than merely survive.
There is a word that is used less often in business and that is ‘imagination’. I believe there is one thing that is certain about the acceleration of digital transformation and global connectivity that has been driven by COVID 19, and that is – if you can imagine something – then you can do it. It will be those businesses that are able to unlock the collective imagination of their organisations that will thrive rather than merely survive.
One small example I would like to offer from my own experience during the COVID 19 crisis is when I decided that we should dip our toes into the water of virtual conferences and exhibitions. I wasn’t really sure what I was signing us up for, but I was determined that – whatever it turned out to be – I wanted us to become ‘black belts’ in reaching Customers digitally. Particularly overseas Customers in an environment where international travel will be unpredictable for the foreseeable future.
One of the biggest benefits from the experience was a totally unexpected one. And that is, online (at least from a business perspective) you are judged by the content of what you post, rather than your age, race, gender or level of ability.
What I observed was our emerging millennial talent interacting with some quite senior, overseas Customers in a very confident and professional way. That is a scenario that might have been difficult to imagine (there’s that word again) in a face to face business environment, where traditional ways of thinking would drive organisations towards deploying more senior and/or more experienced people in such situations.
What I observed was our emerging millennial talent interacting with some quite senior, overseas Customers in a very confident and professional way.
Now, I’m not a social scientist, but I can see that this is perhaps a small vignette of a bigger picture as digital platforms for interaction across all walks of life and work become the norm. I will leave that hanging there for other people to ponder.
I know what I am going to do myself however, and that is to think about how to develop my talent pool to become ‘digitally fit’ for the future and to challenge myself to think differently about how we design jobs and career paths for people – in particular whether we can put people in ‘bigger’ roles earlier as concepts like building ‘digital intimacy’ with Customers become part of our new normal business environment. Millennials in particular will take to that like ducks to water, as they have grown up doing just that on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and WhatsApp.
All this will be in lieu of vast amounts of international travel. I know that’s not great for the global aviation industry but it will make a big contribution to improving the environment by greatly reducing global CO2 emissions. It will also make businesses more competitive by massively reducing the costs of doing international business. I think the moral here is that there will be swings and roundabouts everywhere if you look for them.
Being a ‘Futurologist’ is last year’s cool job. I think what 2020 will teach us is that being an ‘Imaginologist’ is way cooler and more relevant
In my view, being a ‘Futurologist’ is last year’s cool job. I think what 2020 will teach us is that being an ‘Imaginologist’ is way cooler and more relevant in a business environment where COVID 19 has accelerated Digital Transformation and ‘left shifted’ the future as a consequence.
My only question is ‘am I too old to apply?’
Vice President, Sales and Business Development – Thales UK
Bob is VP Sales & Business Development for Thales in the UK and is responsible for driving growth in a number of Defence and Commercial markets in the UK and overseas. His career spans almost 40 years, working for a number of UK & International Engineering & Technology businesses including GEC, BAE SYSTEMS, Raytheon and Leonardo before joining Thales in 2015.From 2010 to 2015, Bob also served as a Fellow of the International Security Research Directorate at Chatham House, working on policy and strategy development in areas such as National Security, Organised Crime and International Drug Control.