COVID-19 redefines Digital Transformation

In the years before COVID-19, the idea of digital transformation was a topic of worldwide discussion among leaders and CEOs alike. However, a real change was far from concrete, with firms and countries simply adopting packaged IT solutions rather than investing in social and organizational change. The automation of processes (purchases, payroll, e.g.) and increased reliance on cloud services was often mistaken for digital transformation.

The pandemic has sent multiple shockwaves towards the private and public sectors around the world. COVID-19 has exposed vulnerability in a variety of industrial practices and IT solutions. Entire sectors of the economy have been pressured to reuse technology and processes in novel ways and at unprecedented speed: beyond the obvious example of 3D printing personal protective equipment from open-source designs, or adapting and bidding into novel supply chains under pressure, a long-awaited re-thinking of the ways in which collaborative work is organized, business models identified, and competitive edges generated is finally emerging

Amid recent chaotic and rapid changes, one lesson is immediately apparent. In essence, digital transformation is no longer just a topic of discussion among world leaders and CEOs, but rather a necessary strategy for coping with the disruptions of COVID-19 at every level of every sector. And it will stick after the crisis ends. The crisis has accelerated the ways in which decision-makers understand and are ready to implement digital transformation.

Digital Transformation, at last!

For many people, digital transformation and adoption of information technology (IT) have long appeared as synonyms. But while IT is focused on running businesses with technology, digital transformation aims to remake and improve the product or operations of a company by utilizing the latest technologies. In essence, digital transformation relies on a fundamental re-thinking of the ways in which organizations, teams, companies, and entire sectors or national economies can make better use of available resources (natural, human, financial) to prosper and create value by leveraging the new possibilities offered by IT.

For a large part of the working force, working from home has been the most tangible part of recent changes induced by COVID. Over the past few years, working from home had gradually evolved as an organic phenomenon rather than a strategy: sending a “WFH” email has become more and more commonplace across industries. However, just two months ago and for much of the workforce, work meant precisely that: going to work. New habits have emerged. Others have remained: time lost in poorly planned or undermanaged meetings just crept back in under the guise of teleconferences may not have been drastically cut. But altogether, what did sound impossible proved feasible, and often practical. Admittedly, it will take time to assess the impact of those new practices on productivity fully. Yet, for many, the field of possibilities for digital transformation has suddenly broadened.

Pandemics are infamous for how sudden they are. They often accelerate processes already in motion. And indeed, almost overnight, the COVID-19 pandemic has transformed the definition of work for the foreseeable future. This begs the question: when the world re-opens, how will the in-person meeting fare against a video conference? It is already clear that this pandemic will last long enough to create new patterns and norms of work. As the world enters “the new normal,” these patterns and norms will endure at some level.

Platforms such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Jitsi, and Google Meet have spiked in popularity as social distancing protocols are enforced. This rise in popularity may last as companies realize they can serve customers and grow faster operating in this digital fashion.

Yet this current moment is unsustainable. As of April 2020, people aren’t working from home in normal circumstances. Instead, people are working remotely in response to a crisis that appeared suddenly, then seemed to slow time down. In these incredibly abnormal circumstances, we can learn an enormous amount about digital transformation from the new technologies and norms being established in real-time.

The pandemic will end, but its impact will endure long after the world recovers. During this time, we must understand these effects with intention, seek evidence, and analyze lessons learned. The working from home digital transformation is occurring on platforms struggling to keep up with explosive demand, sometimes at the cost of trespassing basic rules of security and confidentiality. Yet to a significant degree, these platforms can connect us. Whatever comes next will sit on radically different infrastructure and interfaces, in response to drivers, we cannot possibly know today.

But what we do know today is this: we have a front-row seat to the show of unparalleled digital transformation. This transformation proves that, even in a rough and preliminary form, working from home on digital platforms can create meaningful progress, connections, and human experiences. It is only a tiny part of how digital transformation needs to be understood and implemented today. Still, it is playing a critical pedagogical role, which had remained largely unfilled until COVID broke out. Be it only for that reason, in a few months from now, we may be able to say ‘Goodbye COVID, and thank you!’.

Check Portulans Institute’s NRI for the most network-ready countries for the digital transformation, including our two new case studies on Taiwan and Uzbekistan. A core element of social change for a sustainable digital transformation is people’s skills. Check the GTCI for the state of global talent.