Editorial: The Year That Caught Our Lie

Image credit: iStockphoto/metamorworks

For over a decade, companies have been talking agility and the need to embrace change.

Vendors held seminars to show why agility should be the new business mantra. Consultants created frameworks and studies that connected the dots between agility and business outcomes. The chief digital officer (CDO) job — the inspiration for our publication — was created to spearhead digital-driven change.

Many of these efforts mostly fell on deaf ears—those who had the budget invested in agility; those who did not continue with the status quo. Digital innovation was kept to the periphery. It made the most impact on their ROI formulas, mainly focusing on customer-facing projects. As consumers shifted their behaviors, companies followed them with initiatives that altered their capabilities to meet them.

Startups exploited the gaps, and tech titans (who had digital- and data-driven business models) carved out vast swathes of the online landscape. But wholesale change was not tolerated. The reason was that there was no real economic justification.

So, it comes as no surprise then that the 2020 pandemic caught us unprepared.

Supply chains were disrupted; human resources became remote; demand plummeted and shifted, and new macroeconomic risks were added. Companies were left scrambling. And in boardrooms, worried creases lined the faces of decision-makers who were up till then buoyed by continuous and increasing demand. Suddenly, their businesses faced an existential crisis, and they had to recalibrate, pivot, or even close down — fast.

The panic was quite evident. CDOs, who were supposed to be leading the agility agenda, were joined by their peers from the finance, operations, and human resources departments. Monthly progress was too long, and one-year digital initiatives became rare. The words “resilience” and “agility” were now uttered in the same sentence across the company.

During my interviews with senior leadership, I saw first-hand what these pressures and triggers were doing. For example, companies who never invested in remote working capabilities for their employees paid the ultimate price when they had to spend during the shutdown. Supply chain and logistics companies who never thought of diversifying or building redundancies now did so because they had little clarity on demand forecasts. Healthcare providers who had kept lean operations were now facing shortages in beds and ICU equipment.

2021 promises to be different. Below are 6 reasons why:

Everyone now appreciates the time value of data. Decision-makers and employees now understand that data may be necessary, but there is also time-value attached to it. They cannot wait for these data to be given to them in monthly reports. They need data-driven transparency and insights now. So, they are wiring their company systems and processes to do precisely that. Many are also building new business models after the past or historic ones became irrelevant — at least for the time being.

Artificial intelligence is finally getting its respect. Companies now agree to the value of automating internal processes and allowing humans to focus on workloads where their intervention is needed. With IoT projects becoming accelerated, companies will now gain deeper insights into other areas of operations and finetune the model. Before this, AI proponents faced resistance because of misconceptions about job loss, retraining costs, and justifying the time to train an AI model. All of these hurdles are now playing second fiddle to value, customer relationships, and operational efficiency. Employees are also starting to see AI as an enabler and not a job destroyer.

Digital experience is now becoming a competitive necessity. As companies shift to an online model, they now face stiff competition from global companies, nimble startups, and big techs. They have to differentiate and see why a single source of truth matters to their future. But it is not just the digital experience of their customers that companies are worried about either. Many companies finally realize the need to have the same digital experience level for their internal customers (their employees). And this will drive a new digital experience revolution that speaks to both customer loyalty and employee retention while breaking down the walls between siloed departments.

Innovation is no longer an option. Countless interviews with today’s top executives highlight the new mentality of “innovate or die.” Companies (those who can afford it) are setting up bigger budgets for research and centers of excellence. Many are collaborating with their vendors and other industry players to drive innovation. Others are helping their employees to be part of the innovation journey. This level of innovation will undoubtedly change the way companies operate and compete.

Localization is becoming a fact of life. For years, we took globalization for granted as the global force for change. When the pandemic forced whole populations to stay put and appreciate their local services and products, attitudes changed. You can already see this in job applications. Companies are now looking for local knowledge or exploring local products and services. They are also using digital technologies to make their services and solutions more locally relevant — what analysts call hyper localization. IoT and 5G speeds will make this easier.   

Infrastructure faces a new renaissance. COVID-19 showed how inadequate our local infrastructure was. When employees were asked to work from home, they were not complaining about their laptops or applications. Instead, the biggest problem was their access to the corporate network and becoming an unwitting node for spam. This has created a renewed interest in what infrastructure really means in a world where remote working and lockdowns are the norms. And it also showed the need for private and public companies to engage in partnerships to ensure the infrastructure is always agile and secure.

As we enter 2021, people are becoming more used to constant change. Companies will need to change their approach to embracing change. But digital solutions and initiatives only laid the groundwork; what is now important is for all employees across all departments to collaborate.

This is where I see 2021 setting the trend for the rest of the decade. Agility needs collaboration, period. 2020 forced a new level of collaboration as companies faced their survival tests. It also set a new framework for engagement and decision-making. And the strong economic justification for doing so is finally here.

Here’s to an agile and prosperous start to what will be our roaring ‘20s.

Image credit: iStockphoto/metamorworks