Most days organisations don’t make long-term, enterprise-wide decisions based on current events. But these are not most days. The coronavirus has shifted from an unexpected, life-altering, abrupt event, to a universal, dominant, ongoing presence in our lives. In fact, “presence”, understates it. It has become the lens through which we see most of our decisions. If there is a silver lining to world events this year, it might be that necessity has not only bred invention but provided the platform for long-term digital transformation during coronavirus. For businesses everywhere, digital transformation begun during coronavirus was employed as a short-term, reactionary, fluid decision. But it’s become clear there is nothing short-term about this.
How we can develop long-term digital transformation during coronavirus.
Big might not mean inflexible. We’ve often analogised large organisations to ships or trains – entities that can’t change course on a moments notice. That might have been true when large businesses had huge, centralised footprints funded by massive sunk costs. There was a time when most components of a manufactured goods were made on-site or locally, and all employees (and even many consumers) were physically nearby. But for years – decades, really – we’ve de-centralised where we build things, where we sell things, and outsourced huge parts of the operational chain around the world. BMW, based in Germany, has a large operation in South Carolina. Apple creates (or develops) products in Cupertino, California but it manufactures them in China. Sales teams are dispersed around the world – in part because our consumers are. So we’re already operating together, but apart. We’re not so much one big vessel staring down an iceberg, but a fleet of ships each navigating around similar, but localised obstacles. There’s a lot to be said for appreciating thoughtful, measured change – but there’s real-time evidence that we’re starting long-term digital transformation during coronavirus.
IRL might just be FOMO. (IMO.) As a psychologist, I don’t want to underestimate the real, measurable benefits of real-life interactions. The last six months have made us all painfully aware of how much we rely on the sensory and emotional satisfaction of being in the same room with other human beings. But when it comes to professional tasks — closing a sale, offering technical support or brainstorming for ideas – we have spent less and less time in rooms together. I can remember when I would meet a client for lunch, travelling across London for thirty minutes or more each way, plus up to two hours meeting in person. That was half a workday. Now I do a conference call with half a dozen people across three time zones in the car while I wait for my daughter to come out of volleyball practice. Sure, it feels more productive to be in California when I have a series of meetings based there, in part because being eight hours ahead is really hard. And it is good to connect with people, face-to-face. But if corporations reposition expectations of how their employees do business, if there are no perceived repercussions to saying “actually, I’ll just dial in from here”, we might find that some of those activities are more force of habit than actual required behaviours.
A moving goalpost might be easier to hit. One of the key challenges of effective digital transformation is a misunderstanding of (or improper planning) of what success looks like. But that was back in the old days (like January or so) when our goals centred around traditional business milestones like revenue targets and net promoter scores. Those things are still true, and major influencers on decision-making. But now we have to plan around more fundamental challenges – what if our American colleagues can’t come to a meeting in London without a two-week quarantine? What if the new hot employee benefit becomes subsidies for home office improvements? (Because it’s not going to be gym memberships.) What if senior (read: 60+) executives suddenly decide that face-to-face meetings are risky for their health? (And it looks like they’re the most productive at remote working right now.) The goals of long-term digital transformation might need to reflect some so-called short-term objectives.
Long-term digital transformation during coronavirus might have had an abrupt jump start.
A recent article in the New York Times articulated the ways condos already under construction are reconfiguring apartments to feature home offices, in anticipation that future tenants will be much more likely to work remotely. The costs of re-imagining actual physical buildings already in progress . . . that really does feel like a ship that’s too hard to turn around. By comparison, long-term digital transformation during coronavirus is mostly accelerating a way of working that we’d already started, as a reaction instead of an intentional transformation. But it’s becoming clear that we are transitioning from a temporary crisis to a new normal. We might as well embrace it.