Digital: Responding to, sustaining through, and growing out of the pandemic

Sanjay Srivastava, Cheif Digital Officer, GenpactChasing a ball down the stairs

This is a time like never before, and previous approaches and methodologies don’t really apply. As we have gone into the COVID-19 pandemic, the one clear learning has been that the journey so far is like chasing a ball down the stairs – every step you take the ball has already moved another step away. What’s also becoming very apparent is that coming out of this phase of the pandemic, the way we work, interact, and operate will fundamentally change. And digital transformation will need to step up and deal with some really unprecedented challenges and conquer some new and large opportunities. The collective intelligence of digital professionals across the globe will play a key role in the evolution to this new normal.

A framework for Digital in the COVID-19 age.

It’s important to start the discussion by contextualizing the current in terms of the longer term, and an adaptive framework is helpful in this regard. As I speak with executives and work across digital teams across the world, I see three phases to this journey: (1) Responding and getting setup for change (2) Sustaining business continuity through the pandemic and (3) Growing in new areas in the post COVID-19 world.

1: Responding to it.

It’s critical to note that as we start this journey, leadership is about building a solid foundation of employee and community safety, engaging a broader ecosystem of providers, partners and customers, and building a high-speed culture of proactive change management.

Addressing Employee Safety: The area that we have all moved the fastest in, as a digital community, is the safety of our colleagues and employees. Most of this phase is behind us now, as we have seen company-wide responses that have quickly moved from no international travel, to no travel, from social distancing and deep sanitization of offices, through work from home (WFH), and now to various shelter at home policies across our global communities. For those colleagues that weren’t WFH-enabled, it’s been a frantic journey getting there working across multiple time zones, political jurisdictions, public infrastructure and physical supply chains. And even for colleagues that were already WFH-enabled – and most digital and technology professionals around the globe that aren’t working with physical goods are – the gap between WFH-enablement and WFH-productivity is still being closed.

Driving Ecosystem Engagement: The other body of work that is critical to getting setup is proactively bringing the ecosystem along on the journey. With value chains that are as intricately linked as they have come to be, it’s necessary to approach this change not as an entity but as a collection of entities across the value chain – and take ownership for leading and driving the change across. Leading digital professionals are spending significant time communicating, explaining, and tuning a variety of plans that address significant bumps in that journey – from addressing WFH issues like accidental shoulder surfing in home environments, to prioritizing IT equipment on back orders to the most emergent needs, to working through various regulatory and risk requirements across industries. It’s worth underscoring that in today’s economy getting there by yourself is the same as not arriving at all.

Proactive Change Management: The speed at which pandemic has unfolded and the breadth it’s exhibiting across geographies has required scenario modeling and action orientation at a pace we haven’t had to deal with before. Across the spectrum – from health epidemiology to industrial automation, from cash management to supply chains, the need to go from reactive to proactive has been universal, and the need to drive change in the way works gets done has become critical. Some for the best digital work in this phase, from bluetooth-enabled contract tracing in Singapore, to chatbot-enabled remote health triaging in Seattle, have shown us that digital transformation has really pushed the boundaries of time to develop, social acceptance, and network adoption curves. Proactive change management has been key to this.

2: Sustaining through it:

It’s probably unthinkable that we are likely to return to the era of large downtown brand named skyscrapers with entire management teams in one location – as we move increasingly to world of corporations with distributed teams working at safe social distances, many new and evolved ways of working will be here to stay.

Ways of working: The key here is a shift in the mindset away from a temporary short term fix that we might typically apply to an event like a hurricane or flooding which is more geo-fenced and time-bound. The reality is that our new ways of working will stay with us for the duration of the pandemic – which is not expected to be short. And once we come out of it, it’s unlikely that we will give the same proportion of our time we previously did to lower value tasks, as an example, traveling long distances to every meeting. We must fundamentally rearchitect our ways of working for the long run, and digital teams across the world are embracing and moving quickly, creatively and definitively to this new reality. Internet video conferencing is already seeing widespread adoption from schools to offices, and new capabilities like online brainstorming toolkits and collaboration portals are changing the way we now work. For the digitally-minded this is a journey set to only accelerate.

Employee engagement and contingency planning: One area easy to miss in the early days of this change is mental health and employee engagement. The novelty of working from home environments will soon run out. As children stay back from schools for some and elderly parents / relatives require increased care giving for others, and as the lines between work and family hours increasingly blur, stress levels are bound to build up. In addition, many will miss the social collaboration in the workplace and the sense of purpose in physically co-located and visible teams. We must plan for this by thinking through the full picture as we look at productivity and performance, and provide the toolkits and support for creativity and out of box thinking. Social collaboration online is becoming an important aspect of this – we have seen some great and creative examples from virtual grab-a-drink sessions to online yoga meets for teams that work together. The leaders in the space are also modeling for key employees potentially needing to be absent for periods of time, either individually, or by geographies that see larger spikes in public health issues, and thoughtfully designating stand-ins if needed, and purposefully distributing work across the globe.

Security: In an increasingly automated and data-driven world, information security has always been a concern, but now requires more thinking in the world of changes afoot. Virtualized teams, remote distributed access, increased dependence on public infrastructure, and higher data leverage, all increase the threat surface. Solutions and frameworks are available for each of these areas and careful thought and detailed planning is needed to pull it together. It’s also worth highlighting that the frontier of information security management has always been user behavior, and so enhanced training in this era of WFH becomes a critical imperative for most businesses. As we move deeper into new distributed ways of working, key investments and dedicated leadership in the area of information security will become critical to success, and digital leaders worldwide need to attend to this.

3: Growing out of it: 

Disruption creates new opportunities for growth and digital professionals across the world should to look to, and plan early for, that growth as we rebound out of this crisis. We are already seeing strong drivers for acceleration in digitization – bear in mind many companies struggled to launch WFH consistently and in many ways saw this as a honest test of internal digitization, so coming out of this crisis the recognition of the need for improvement will be high on the minds of corporate boards.

Move to the cloud: One of the key learning points through this crisis is that cloud-enabled services have responded, scaled and performed well. On the other hand, many corporations have gotten stuck with access and performance issues associated with on-premise applications sitting behind firewalls now being accessed by distributed teams virtually. This picture is compounded when you include the insatiable need for data and information not stored in scalable, and cloud-enabled lakes. Finally, as more and more executives across mainstream corporations necessarily experience the availability, resilience and performance of cloud-based capabilities like Microsoft Teams across board rooms and top-to-top meetings, traditional inhibitors are bound to diffuse away. It’s safe, as a result, to expect a large scale movement to the cloud as we rebound back. And demand will converge around three areas – designing the new cloud infrastructure, migrating and re-platforming applications, and managing and maintaining the cloud stack – digital professionals will do well to start planning ahead.

Analytics & AI: It’s already pretty clear that the role of Analytics and AI in the enterprise has changed forever – and as a result analytics professionals in corporations have never been in as much demand. Corporate executives working through fast-changing economic and business environments but sitting in distributed environments in virtual teams are in need of more information, insights and predictions than ever before. And from revenue optimization with commercial analytics modeling, through business continuity across changing and distributed supply chains, to enterprise performance risk across a fast evolving economic, credit and demand landscape, the need for analytics and AI has clearly peaked. As we plan for the rebound, this is a trend that I see only accelerating.

Digital customer experience: As corporations across the globe react to the changing market and social landscape, the way business gets done and delivered is fundamentally changing. We are already seeing new business models evolve, channels of distribution and delivery completely change, and entire value propositions rotate to the new needs of the market. And through much of that the physical handshake with a customer changes– it’s unlikely for instance we will ever see the same footprint in retail branches of banks, or travel in the same numbers to large trade shows and industrial conferences, or interact with brands that way we used to at the neighborhood store. In that new world, digital customer experience will need to reinvent these old ways of engaging with customers and transacting business. And this redesign will require reimagining entire customer journeys, building new digital capability, intelligently automating much of lower value tasks, and improving the customer experience digitally. This will become an urgent call for action for digital transformation teams. 

Staying a step ahead.

In summary, as with other professionals, Covid-19 has left digital teams in a challenging and difficult situation worldwide. Our structured response collectively must to be reframe our thinking across the three phases of our journey through this. Much of the work is now done in the first phase of responding and there are some great lessons we can cross-apply. As we collectively move into the second phase of sustaining we need to proactively work out new ways of collaborating, performing and delivering continuity. And finally even as we are firefighting through this day to day, it’s critical we see the trend lines that will no doubt accelerate as we rebound out of it. For digital professionals across the globe, it will be important, more now than ever, to stay one step ahead.

Authored by:- Mr. Sanjay Srivastava, Chief Digital Officer, Genpact

(The views expressed in this article are by Mr. Sanjay Srivastava, Chief Digital Officer, Genpact, doesn’t own any responsibility for it.)

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