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Looking towards the "new normal" - from crisis to change catalyst

Crisis as a change catalyst

As a thirty something myself, it could be argued that I've seen little of major crises in my lifetime, let alone in my working career. I do however have distinct memories of the last recession as a newly inducted business development professional and the words "invest to save" ringing in my ears from my old manager at Océ as our go-to-market narrative. I remember the mindset that our customers were adopting in how to gear their organisations and where they sought to invest, I had two categories for these approaches at the time:

A) survival tactics with the hopes of reverting to BAU post economic correction - always seeking savings but less receptive to change, or;

B) those who saw the circumstances as an evolution accelerator - seeking new ways of delivering outcomes.

The former being those businesses who have stayed relatively the same performance wise post recession, and the latter being those who (in my opinion) generally grew more. The now retired CEO of one of my previous employers (Kieran O'Brien of the Hobs Group) was definitely in category B, he was notorious for reflecting, tweaking operations and investing in innovation in the core business during the downtime and would frequently remind employees, customers and suppliers of this strategies benefits. It seems both he and I weren't too far wrong in this thinking either, with Gartner's recent poll on crisis response highlighting a significant delta (nearly 1/3) in the quartile performance between companies based on action taken during crisis.

Crisis management can be likened to a car on an F1 track

Borrowing some more anecdotes from recent webinars (credit to Chris Huff, CSO at Kofax), think of category B in the context of an F1 race where straight line speed doesn't determine the winner. The winning drivers and teams employ strategies and crucially make most gains in the cornering, how early they can hit the accelerator and lay down power. Think then of this crisis as the corner on the track perhaps.

The circumstances of today's COVID crisis differ significantly to the recession I remember, businesses aren't strangled by a slowly creeping finance-sector-initiated economic illness, but moreover a rapid and devastating combination of demand disappearing and restrictions on how (and if indeed) we can fulfil goods and services. A truly unique economical test that even some of the best thought out business continuity plans are struggling to grapple with. I'm no data scientist so won't speak to how quickly and in what ways I suspect the UK might exit from restrictions (and hopefully enter a subsequent rapid recovery), but I can see a significant opportunity on the horizon for those organisations in category B who've been through their "initial reaction" phases (DR plans, communications, workforce adjustments, general keeping the lights on activity) and beginning to reflect and assess what the "new normal" looks like for them - asking themselves how would they like their operations to run once they're on the other side of this?

What's evident is that this whole episode has cast a new and unforgiving spotlight on business operations, with frailties of some departmental and process operations bared to all.

Like everyone else, we feel the pinch but are fortunate to have a nice pipeline of long-term project delivery. So what are we at Virtuoso Partners learning from our network as we begin trying to understand the "new normal"? Here's a few insights from the various online meetings, customer, vendor and partner conversations I and my colleagues are having:

  • Manual business processes that were considered to be "fine" and acceptable three weeks ago are now exposing their fragility, true costs and dependencies that were previously taken for granted - we've noticed increased awareness amongst management of the fine "details" in process delivery.

  • The world didn't stop turning on its axis with such a radical, high-velocity change - it's undoubtedly awful and much harder but some of our customers have cited they're less intimidated by "big bang" scale deployments in future.

  • Many businesses are quickly learning that their operations are much more feasible than they first thought if people don't head into the office, remote working is as much an employee trust quandary for management as it is a technical challenge.

  • You can have the best virtualized infrastructure but so much is out of organisational IT's control around homeworking connectivity that can harm productivity with remote desktop sessions and better alternatives are sought.

  • Lots of dialogue around how to use automation to bridge the productivity and resource gap presented by a depleted workforce and connectivity challenges on back-office functions in finance, HR and front-office fulfilment

  • Renewed interest in workflow to simplify the flow of information between departments, processes and fulfilment and resolve bottlenecks and in lieu of being able to conduct simple conversations, access networks or pass documents around in the same ways

  • A desire to assess scalable content solutions that enable workable BYOD (bring your own device) use whilst delivering information acceptable levels of information security and that cut out fragile remote connectivity issues

As someone working in the content management and intelligent automation space and general optimist, I strongly anticipate renewed efforts and interest in automation from business leaders as they reflect on how to fine-tune their organisations delivery processes, assess resources and tools to become stronger and more agile organisations.

The reflection I'm talking about more than just the usual digital transformation narrative, this is reflection on business process transformation requiring organisations to look beyond the superficial (but no-less excellent) productivity tools offered by Office 365 and dig very deep into why and how they do things at a granular level.

"If you broke down everything you could think of, that goes into riding a bike, and then improved it by 1%, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together."

Issues in processes that are visible today, no matter how small, represent opportunity for advantage, especially when we combine many of them. Quoting Dave Brailsford, the former performance director of British Cycling who raised the team to its pinnacle, on the aggregation of marginal gains: "The whole principle came from the idea that if you broke down everything you could think of, that goes into riding a bike, and then improved it by 1%, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together."

What if different elements of a business process (or holistic function) had potential to yield 5, 10 or perhaps even 20%+ in efficiency gain through automation or even simple re-engineering?

It's difficult to make the time for this analysis and reflection at the best of times, let alone when implementing radical business continuity measures under duress. Nonetheless, history tells us that those that are able to successfully reflect and implement automation and change advantages now will be arguably best placed to grow and profit on the exit path from COVID - how long that will take, who knows?

Ben Nilsson

It's now more than ever that we should be taking perspective on the why, what and how our organisations do things.

We're interested in hearing your perceptions of what "new normal" can yield for the positive outcomes in the future for your organisation. We're happy to provide a free half days consultancy to anyone in need at the moment so do reach out and start a conversation.


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