Digital transformation in the age of coronavirus

Understand the human challenges before making the rush to digital.

by Samar Héchaimé & David Landsman
Last Updated: 18 Jun 2020

Even as they manage the immediate crisis, every board and every CEO has started looking at how to secure their organisation’s future post-COVID. 

With social distancing the unique feature of pandemic crisis management, digital transformation will be at the heart of the future for almost everyone. But how can organisations make digital the springboard for a new if still uncertain future, rather than just plastering over the cracks of the present? 

It makes sense to delay the “rush to digital” until we’ve begun to understand the human challenges we face. Armed with a deeper understanding, the organisation can use digital rather than being driven by it; and executives can make themselves truly “intelligent clients” of their digital transformation partners. 

If we examine the experience so far of how countries are managing the human challenges in the crisis, we can see three principles to help organisations focus in the next phase. 

First, in the rush to lock down, governments initially overlooked some groups, from those with mental illnesses to those at risk of domestic violence, subsequently introducing measures to protect them. As businesses transform, boards should ask whether legacy segmentation exercises have truly captured all the groups among customers, employees and other stakeholders. 

This is a time to identify and understand everyone’s needs in accessing the new digital organisation. For example, with COVID causing many workers to lose their jobs or to go part-time, retail banks may wish to consider whether traditional market segmentation reflects their customers’ needs. 

Secondly, as countries emerge from lockdown, the interconnections we take for granted are becoming critical. A manufacturer can’t return to full production if employees can’t use public transport to get to work or if their children can’t go back to school. 

The lesson? Even if our segmentation is sensitive enough, people don’t just act individually. To get a real idea of behaviour, take time to understand the interactions between customer, employee and stakeholder groups. For example, organisations providing transport services will need to examine how working from home combined with a gradual return to school creates new travel patterns. 

Finally, as governments and business prepare for the “new normal”, we have to admit we don’t know what it will look like, hence some of the wild predictions and false steps we’re hearing. So ensure that the next digital transformation is flexible enough to respond to a variety of future scenarios as people’s needs and behaviours evolve.

This means being able to repeat the segmentation and interconnection exercises iteratively and open-mindedly as the situation evolves. For example, it’s likely that the balance between physical and digital shopping evolves over potentially an extended period as health concerns decline and a desire for “experience shopping” returns. 

Identifying who is in our ecosystem, examining the interactions and planning for an iterative approach isn’t just segmentation by another name. Using a combination of design thinking and systems thinking tools can help to understand better the coming “new normal”. And if we can do that, we can make our transformation go beyond digital towards a holistic future we can shape for the organisation, its customers, people and society. 

Samar Héchaimé is an architect and corporate strategist. David Landsman is a corporate executive and former British diplomat. Both are directors of Agora Envisioning.

Image credit: zf L via Getty Images 

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