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Has COVID-19 revealed the secret to digital transformation?

  • Posted on May 21, 2020
  • Estimated reading time 3 minutes

Like you, I recently joined hundreds of thousands of Australians in a national work-from-home (WFH) experiment. Personally, I’ve found it a character-building experience helping my wife to home-school our 9 and 8-year-old boys while working full-time.

But, while we were discovering how hard it is to keep small boys engaged in lessons, IT organisations around the country were performing miracles. Avanade was lucky. We already had the tooling in place to support WFH and continue to work with our clients. But many companies had to roll out digital tools and pivot online from a standing start.

Around the country, in a matter of days, amazing things happened. Microsoft Teams appeared on tens of thousands of laptops. Virtual agents arrived in call centres to handle basic enquiries as volumes spiked. Entire systems moved to the cloud to support agility. On the front line, hospitals deployed AI to automatically capture patient information to remove the administrative burden from doctors and nurses.

It was a fantastic effort that I applaud wholeheartedly. But we must not see it as an extraordinary, one-off. I believe we should ‘bottle’ what we did and consider it a template for business as usual. Because, that rapid deployment of digital capabilities demolished a bunch of myths that have been holding business back from digital transformation. That we don’t have the budget. That employees won’t engage with digital tools. That it’s too soon to invest in ‘advanced’ tech like AI.

Turns out: we do, they will – and it’s not!
Research shows that, before the crisis, almost 90% of organisations around the globe had yet to master digital transformation at scale . But the speed and success of the corporate response to lockdown suggests we can crush that figure.

COVID-19 has shone a spotlight on three critical ideas that cut through ‘digital transformation fatigue’ and put progress on steroids:
1) Fast-track high-value projects at an industrial scale – no matter what the apparent hurdles. Six weeks ago, massive IT projects that many companies had put it the ‘too hard’ basket suddenly and magically got done – practically overnight. Because it was a question of survival. No one wrote a business case. No one quibbled about the cost or argued about the choice of technology.

As we start positioning for recovery, we need to continue to operate as though digital capabilities are critical to our survival. Because they are.

I understand you don’t want to spend money on something unless it’s ‘burning’. But, how about you spend money before things burst into flame?

Based on where you think your market will be by the end of the year, what will be the digital capabilities essential to compete and win? Start implementing them now with the same level of pragmatism and urgency you took into lockdown. Ignore the pain and cost of leaving legacy behind. Forget trying to save by doing digital projects in siloes. Focus on rapidly implementing winning digital capabilities using industrialised, enterprise-wide platforms.

2) Focus on customer and employee experiences. Every COVID project started with the same human-centric, design-thinking imperative: “We need people to be able to…” We need employees to be able to perform their role from home. We need customers to be able to buy from us online or get fast answers to their questions. No one focused on the digital. It was all about solving the human problem.

As we move beyond the immediate COVID response, we must keep up this focus on the people using digital technology – especially our employees. Great customer experiences require equal investment in employee experiences. We’ve given our employees tools. But how do we know those tools are being used effectively? We need workplace analytics. First, to find and fix pockets of disengagement. We also need to identify teams who are smashing it out, so we can share their tactics with the rest of the organisation.

And we need to use data to optimise and empower employees by giving them data-based insights and connecting them with intelligent technologies. Which, by the way, is becoming much easier, fast. Platforms are becoming super self-service friendly. All by themselves, business owners can spin up dashboards to see what’s happening in their part of the business, and harness AI to tell them ‘why’ without the need to do large IT transformation.

We also need to keep using design-led thinking. That means reaching out across silos to get a multi-disciplinary view of the actual problem and then finding the solution across people and processes – as well as technology. Comparatively, the tech side is pretty easy. It’s the people aspect – the actual human experience – that’s more important.

As a simple example, I went into lockdown already familiar with WFH tools. But it was a steep learning curve figuring out how to use them well. When your workspace shrinks to a small corner of the spare room, it’s easy to be ‘on’ all the time – and that doesn’t end well. Our HR function was key in instilling small, practical disciplines to alleviate the pressure, like setting 45-minute meetings so you get a break to make a cup of tea, stretch and reflect on the discussion. Without interventions like this, no matter how slick the technology, the human experience would have been substantially degraded.

3) Grab as many ‘advanced’ technologies as you can. The game-changing benefits of digital transformation only come when you infused everything with intelligence. Don’t think AI or machine intelligence are ‘too advanced’ for your business. They’re actually mainstream already. Fast-track their adoption and watch the value of your digital investment grow exponentially.

Follow an iterative use-case based approach, be clear on the value you are targeting. Start small and build on the quick wins, evolving governance and security practices in parallel.

COVID-19 has shone a light on the path to digital transformation in recovery, highlighting the importance of acting swiftly and decisively to adopt high-value digital capabilities, solving problems from the people perspective, and rapidly harnessing AI to augment human capability.

As the economy comes back online, let’s not waste another second worrying that we don’t know ‘how to do’ digital transformation. We just did it. Let’s keep going.

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