We're halfway through 2020 and it's difficult to fathom that this would be the year a virus would cause countries to seal their borders and put entire populations into lockdown, severely impacting global trade, business, and education.
Along with the immense human, economic, and social losses, we have also learned a lot about the human capacity for resilience these past several months. As sudden and unprecedented as the crisis has been, the way that governments and businesses worldwide have responded has been telling. The Dubai government, for example, implemented a strict lockdown system that entailed people getting a permit to go outside. Governments also rapidly launched websites so residents could acquire movement permits within minutes—an example of truly agile service development and implementation. In several cities, barriers of scale and speed were overcome to construct hospitals with thousands of beds in a matter of days.
The drastic changes wrought by COVID-19 practically overnight can feel both overwhelming and paralyzing. Nevertheless, for leaders in both the public and private sectors, it is imperative to keep the forward momentum going. Agility and customer centricity will determine our ability to successfully adapt.
Today, the digital journey for many businesses has been compressed from months or years to a matter of days. What remains a constant in this rapidly changing business environment is the need for empathy with customers and employees and the ability to anticipate both their present and future needs. Now more than ever, businesses need to develop and deliver value to internal and external customers, aligning priorities, investments, resources, and incentives accordingly.
For many organizations, this requires a rapid shift from a classically inward-focused, efficiency-driven model to an outward-focused one that intimately puts the customer at the center of everything an organization does. When it comes to providing services, this shift translates to an increased focus on safety, speed, sustainability, and transparency in addition to the usual focus areas of efficiency and convenience.
During this crisis, one of the world’s biggest malls, The Dubai Mall, has moved online to offer customers a virtual shopping experience at home. Listening to their customers along every step of the online transaction, developing the emotional compass to gauge their mood, and harnessing the data to anticipate future needs—these businesses are well positioned to retain their customers once the crisis is over and some semblance of normalcy returns.
One of the most striking lessons learned from this crisis has been overcoming challenges and catering to customer needs by accelerating the fusion between business and digital. Instead of being the disruptor, digital is now the only way to do business in many cases. Whether in enabling remote work at scale, educating children online, organizing virtual events, or enabling day-to-day shopping, the digital model has not only proved to be socially and economically viable, but is also boldly overtaking existing physical models. Customers have crossed the barrier to digital adoption and now there is no going back.
Organizations today require a radically different approach to digital transformation, one that not only fosters acceptance of the changing demand dynamics, but also focuses on providing value through rapid experimentation and scaling of digital capabilities and services. Unlocking digital agility and realizing its full potential is key to being successful in today’s volatile operating environment.
Based on our experience working with leading global and regional public and private sector clients, here are recommendations and best practices to help organizations pivot their digital transformation efforts in the new reality:
- Focus on what matters—think long term but act now. It was always good business practice to adopt a dual-term strategic thinking process: catering for a longer term view while fostering an action-oriented view on the short term, starting with customer services and interaction channels. Today’s reality demands quicker feedback and review cycles to ensure continuous improvement of value delivery in alignment with rapidly evolving customer needs. During and amid the COVID-19 crisis, be prepared to shift focus to act fast as the business environment is changing daily. Establish dynamic, flexible targets over static ones through a greater focus on speed, sustainability, transparency, physical and mental safety, and overall value for customers.
- Adopt an agile work model and pivot talent. The era of remote work has arrived rather dramatically and is increasingly being institutionalized. In the post-crisis era, we can expect cost cutting, customer needs, and potentially, new regulations to also shape work models. Employees’ changing needs and expectations will lead organizations to rethink work arrangements and employee engagement approaches. While it is still too soon to assess the impact of remote work on hiring, development, and retention, an organizational mindset that fosters agility and accepts failure as a necessary step to succeeding is vital. Promote a diverse digitally savvy culture—one that focuses on the customer, favors experimentation, and supports employee engagement—and develop a supportive and creative work environment that fosters and nurtures the required talent. Develop or acquire agile and digital competencies that are critical to building the dynamic capabilities needed to manage and thrive today and tomorrow.
- Leverage quality knowledge and insights. It will help you build situational awareness, drive decision making, and enhance customer interactions on multiple levels. Organizations today need to develop intimate empathy for their customers. It requires pushing analytics beyond their head office to frontlines before, during, and after customer interactions, while being able to rapidly predict and identify patterns and analyze potential scenarios.
- Act fast and strengthen digital capabilities as you go. Investing in Industry 4.0 technologies such as blockchain, artificial intelligence, and virtual and augmented reality leveraging a prioritized use-case driven approach allows industries to create innovative and new business models and reinforce digital adoption with resiliency to crises, cost and efficiency being the drivers. Technology has prepared us to even create a digital twin of an organization, enable rapid prototyping and iterative and incremental development of products and services to ensure we are building them right, and at the right speed—with time to market compressed to days and weeks, instead of months.
- Protect yourself. Prepare yourself. Be proactive. With the abrupt demand for remote work, virtual communication and interaction, and online models, organizations are bound to be more vulnerable to threats than before. Regularly assessing the cyber landscape, strengthening monitoring and response capabilities, conducting cybersecurity threat and vulnerability assessments, and identifying and implementing the right measures in a prompt and proactive manner become critical. Similarly, raising awareness among employees to ensure that cybersecurity risks and threats are clearly understood and that the guidelines and requirements for work are effectively followed and practiced become more important than ever.
- Don’t wait to innovate, especially in tough times. While there is no definite end in sight to the current crisis, what’s clear is that those who learn from these difficult times and master the art of driving digital transformation—with innovation and agility—will thrive.
Though the COVID-19 crisis is still unfolding, it has irrevocably altered the global social and business landscape. With digital rising to the challenge, remote working, online learning, and social distancing are all part of the new normal. Organizations that embrace digitalization, with agility and empathy, will emerge with a stronger value offering, enjoy a loyal and expanding customer base, and retain an engaged, motivated, and innovative workforce.
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