This is digital transformation in the time of COVID. Organizations have launched new products, shifted their business models, rallied to serve customers, redeployed talent and assets, made digital what was previously daunting (including working remotely) – and all in an instant. Globally.
We are now at a good point to reflect on what the COVID-19 pandemic has enabled organizations to achieve with digital transformation as well as why they’ve been able to do it. The inspiration and insights can fuel organizations to build upon this momentum and sustain it for the deeper transformation needed to truly become a digital enterprise.
Digital transformation is happening globally – and we just did it.
Where organizations had deliberated and even agonized over how to achieve the magnitude of digital transformation, how customers would react, or how to get prepared – during COVID we just did it. We are surrounded by digital transformation in action and real-life success stories across the globe.
For example, some insurance companies adapted by finally digitalizing some of the existing paper-based forms and interactions and health insurance companies quickly addressed coverage for telemedicine. Restaurants have responded in different ways from using electronic ordering systems for customers dining in to pivoting their entire business model as a Seattle fine dining restaurant did, shifting from its long-standing tradition of fine dining to offering bagels, drive thru burgers and a delivered family meal service.1 FedEx leveraged its extensive shipping intelligence and network to support COVID relief and recovery efforts by scaling up to process shipments for testing material, medicines and other medical equipment.2 3M used its surge capacity and localized supply chains to increase the production of N95 masks needed for the pandemic.3
Of course we must also acknowledge how such a significant portion of the global working population shifted to a work from home model at such a rapid pace that it seemed like it happened overnight, requiring infrastructure and paradigm shifts beyond our imagination. The pandemic has also given us glimpses that affirm our humanity and the power of digital in enabling it. We have not just bonded together through our collective crisis and work from home experiment, but we are even witnessing global data sharing and cooperation that crosses organizational and country boundaries in an effort to develop a vaccine for the common good.
These snapshots are simply a few reminders of the transformation that we are achieving and the digital technology that underpins it.
We have we learned about digital transformation? The art of the possible.
We learned that accelerated digital transformation and innovation – in some cases of a radical nature – is possible. We learned that perhaps it does not have to be as hard as we thought, and things can turn out even better than we imagined.
We learned that employees and partners can and will rise to the challenge and that a sense of purpose and urgency is a great motivator. We saw another alternative to organizational hierarchies and structures as we watched front-line employees making critical decisions and acting with autonomy.
We learned that organizational preparedness, agility and resilience are not only important, but can lead to competitive advantage – and survival. Planning for business continuity, having some slack in the system versus being overly efficient, creating a culture of innovation and empowerment, and just having a high-level blueprint of what an organization does all proved to be accelerators for response.
We also learned that some of the assumptions we held so closely and with such certainty were not necessarily true. For example, many organizations assumed that working from home could not work on a large scale or that customers would not accept new types of digital products or ways of working.
We can carry forward our learning and momentum to fuel further digital transformation.
We should celebrate our digital achievements and use them to inspire and inform the next phase of deeper digital transformation that many organizations are still working towards. This requires structural changes to hard wire organizations for the digital era as well as changes from an individual human perspective.
Structural changes help organizations design with intention for innovation, adaptation and resilience. This includes focus areas such as streamlining operations to reduce redundancies, shifting to a decentralized, self-organizing management model,4 and building a strong internal capability and culture for continual innovation and delivery that is perpetual even if not always perfect. Creating a business knowledgebase also facilitates a shared understanding of what an organization does to inform rapid decision-making on what capabilities are most important to the business and how business building blocks can be leveraged for additional capacity or new ways of delivering value.
On the human side, some key considerations include how to create urgency and a sense of purpose for digital transformation once we’ve moved beyond the actual situation introduced by the pandemic. After all, organizations are made up of individuals. Aligning human intrinsic motivation with an organization’s purpose and goals is important to achieving sustained success. In his book Drive, Daniel Pink challenges organizations to a new vision for motivating employees in the workplace, based on three components of intrinsic motivation. These components include autonomy, mastery and purpose.5 For organizations who have thrived during the pandemic, some of their success may in part be due to a renewed purpose and motivation among employees where they had new autonomy (e.g., decision-making), mastery (e.g., an urgent need to improve how they delivered in their role) and purpose (e.g., a desire to serve customers, patients or constituents in a time of need).
Finally, one of the most important learnings to carry forward is to always question our assumptions. This is even more important now that we have experienced what is possible and there is no “normal” to return to. We’re in the new paradigm. One of the best ways to question assumptions is to apply first principles-thinking to break down problems and situations into their essentials, in order to build a true understanding of reality versus one that is based on assumptions. This will not only guide direction accurately, but also unlock new ideas and possibility.6
COVID has claimed all too many lives and livelihoods, but we can leverage this opportunity to reset and re imagine a better world – and shape the digital era ahead for all of us. Understanding what has been possible as well as the underlying reasons why gives us a fresh perspective and deeper understanding of the art of the possible for a digital enterprise and what it takes to achieve it.
If you feel your organization is doing something innovative to adapt and transform, contact me to discuss what you are doing for a future article and potential podcast.
- Lilly Smith, “This Seattle restaurant is redesigning its entire business model in response to the coronavirus,” Fast Company, March 16, 2020.
- Risher, Wayne, “’Like military base on high alert,’ FedEx hub aids COVID-19 fight,” Daily Memphian, March 19, 2020.
- Gruley, Bryan and Clough, Rick, “How 3M Plans to Make More Than a Billion Masks By End of Year,” Bloomberg Businessweek, March 25, 2020.
- See Arajuo Charles, “Why Self-Organization and Decentralization Will Be The Management Model of the Digital Era,” June 19, 2020.
- Pink, Daniel, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, 2011.
- “First Principles: The Building Blocks of True Knowledge,” Farnam Street.
Whynde Kuehn is the Founder and Managing Director of S2E Consulting, helping clients bridge the gap between strategy and execution, and achieve their greatest visions for business transformation in a practical and business-focused way. Whynde has extensive experience in enterprise transformation and planning and was a key player in architecting one of the largest digital business transformations in the world. She also led one of the largest business transformation and architecture consulting practices prior to starting S2E.
Whynde is an advocate for using business architecture to enable effective strategy execution and digital transformation. She is a long-time business architecture practitioner, educator, author and recognized industry thought leader, with extensive experience applying the discipline at leading Fortune 500 enterprises and a range of entrepreneurs, nonprofits and social initiatives. She is also Partner at Business Architecture Associates, Senior Consultant for Cutter Consortium and Co-Founder of the Business Architecture Guild.