…and the role technology plays in it
It was 2017. CIO&Leader Annual Conference was being held in Udaipur that year. It was themed Agenda 2020. Participating CIOs worked in groups to prepare the enterprise IT agenda for 2020, which we were to convert into a book (for the record, we did).
“Why are all plans—from CIOs’ to business organizations’ to governments’—being designed for 2020? As if time would stop; and restart in 2020,” quipped a participating CIO from a large manufacturing company, while having a friendly banter with other CIOs during the cocktail. All in the conversation—this writer included—had a hearty laugh.
After three years, the joke is on all of us.
Who knew, 2020 would actually make us stop everything. And then restart them—very, very differently.
That is 2020. The year life changed. The year the world changed.
It is not unusual for publications like ours to do year-ender stories, trying to sound analytical, differentiated and even philosophical. This year was too dramatic for all that.
None—and no exaggeration here—would have imagined, just 10 months back, what our lives would go through; what the world would go through. And even in hindsight, it is difficult to say for sure how exactly it has changed us, because it isn’t over yet. As they say in India, "picture abhi baki hai mere dost". We still haven’t got the picture.
Of course, the year was the year of the pandemic. Or so, we hope. Year 2021 would ‘hopefully’ be much better. But that is a story for another day.
The pandemic changed everything—the kind of impact it had on our lives, on economy, on businesses, on technology, and on technology’s role in everything else.
We would try not to be too analytical about the past, nor to be too prophetic about the future—not even the immediate future. Instead, we will try to tell you the story through seven aphorisms about the year.
We will succeed in what we want to tell you if you identify with them, rather than get impressed by them—what we would have otherwise wished and hoped for, in any other time.
So, here we go.
And then came the real disruption…
In the last few years, ‘disruption’, with prefixes like business, technology, digital, consumer, and sometimes in its adjective form ‘disruptive’ have dominated business and technology lingo. Few business strategy outlook presentations are complete without referring to some ‘disruptive’ force or agent or planning for some kind of ‘disruption’. A simple search for book titles on Amazon would give you more than 100 books with disruption in its title—with a vast majority of them being about business and/or technology. Google Ngram viewer—which depicts the number of times terms occurred in books digitized by Google—shows ‘digital disruption’, as a phrase growing more than 15 times in its occurrences in books.
Most of these ‘disruptions’ that people referred to—and tackling of which became the Holy Grail of all business executives—are often nothing other than shifts in market conditions, newer business models, an innovative application of technology or a major change in policy. So, entry of the app-based hotel and taxi aggregators was a disruption; demonetization was a disruption; and a player in one market segment leveraging its strength to enter another segment was a disruption, according to that definition.
And then came the real disruption. The Great Disruption of 2020. All that we had learnt, all that we had been coached for, all that we had prepared for, suddenly seemed very inadequate, not the least because of the overwhelming nature of the disruption. It was not one thing that was being disrupted. Our lives were getting disrupted from all sides. And we were struggling to somehow manage. All the preparations and the insights were of little use.
Just two things helped us: human resilience that we as a species have acquired over millions of years while struggling to survive—and some technology that we had invented, but used for solving out well-known problems, which now got exploited in a much more diverse and prolific manner to tackle the situation.
It was like no other disruption that we had seen or even heard about.
‘Thank God we had cloud’
The evolution of cloud story in business organizations has been fascinating. What started with trying to bypass the central IT on one hand (SaaS) and capex to opex on the other, to impress CFOs is today the most important technology model for organizations, for the scalability, flexibility (the euphemism for two-way scalability till recently), manageability, ability to be on the forefront of technology at all time, and a whole lot of new advantages such as availability of APIs and yes, security—the very factor, considered in early days as a disadvantage of cloud.
While practical reasons—read logistics, ‘investment protection’ and inertia—may have deterred many for going to cloud whole-heartedly, its utility and TINA factor today is well acknowledged.
The pandemic brought out a whole new use case for cloud-business continuity. With everything on cloud, and often fairly securely accessible through the public internet, many organizations relied on cloud to quickly create a work from home setup, in days. And we are not just talking of organizations that are high on IT maturity and are used to remote working. Almost all organizations, whatever their business is and however mature their IT setup was, took to remote working—and fairly easily.
Many organizations who used to find reasons not to have cloud are now fully converts.
‘Not for our business’….unless of course, forced to
In the roundtable discussions that we have organized in the last 4-5 months, one most common comment that is echoed by all CIOs is how difficult it was to convince their top management and peers to go for digitization before the pandemic. In two months, that changed completely.
This happened because of three reasons.
First and foremost, there was no other alternative. Adapt or stop. And stopping for months, even days, was not an option, especially when tools were readily available. Many of these industries like logistics, pharma, healthcare, and airlines were lifelines of economy. Earlier, it was a question of choosing between the promised ‘speed’, ‘efficiency’, ‘customer experience’ and many more things on one hand and ‘trust’, ‘reliability’, ‘security’ (read ‘comfort with the existing’) on the other. The pandemic turned that to a question of survival. Of course, survival won.
Second, to be fair to them, all the good things (as in speed, agility and efficiency) were ‘promises’. Once forced to adapt, they saw it in action. Seeing is believing.
Finally, it is a cheer for the technology community, especially the enterprise technology managers. It was a real disruption that few had envisaged and planned for. Yet, it is to the credit of our technology managers that they not only saved the day, but also managed to show (maybe, they themselves learnt) how digitization achieved even better results than
what they had promised. So, unwittingly, they ‘did not let the opportunity go’ to ‘demonstrate’ what digitization could do—and do better. And how
It is clear now that no business can say it is ‘not for us’. At least, there is a paradigm shift in belief. The joke of COVID-19 being the bigger driver of digital transformation than the CIO is something not entirely untrue. And the CIO is only too happy and willing to concede the defeat!
Going ‘to work’ is not ‘going to’ work
Just as mobile phones made people connect with other people directly, instead of being tied to a place, one of the biggest shifts—arguably the biggest—that this disruption brought was dissociating the work from the workplace.
There were many industries where work from home was an alien concept. Some of them had even resisted shifting to work from home, preferring, instead to grant leave to employees for a ‘few’ days. They had to quickly change track after it was predicted that there was no end in sight for the pandemic. That end is still elusive after eight months. Work from home saved the businesses. It saved our economy.
In many other industries, where remote working was not an alien concept as travel was the norm, still found work from home not as comforting earlier. For some managers, work from home was a euphemism for taking an off unofficially—even though the organizations allowed it.
The pandemic made work win against workplace. Going ‘to work’ was no more ‘going to work’.
Technology did its bit. Securing the workplace became the buzzword. Future Workplace, a concept that had started sometime back, actively marketed by a few vendors, actually took off in a big way.
Probably, for some foreseeable time, for a majority, going to work is “not going to work”, even as some cities and areas keep playing hide and seek with the pandemic.
Business continuity turned on its head
Business continuity is a phrase that has ruled in the last two decades. While the concept could be wider, technology vendors and enterprise technology managers have made the maximum use of the phrase.
Organizations have spent crores and have attained levels of certification to ensure business continuity and disaster recovery. But all these efforts have been aimed at achieving two objectives: ensuring that the infrastructure does not go down and ensuring that the data is protected. Many have even achieved considerable success in ensuring these two.
But when the disruptions in 2020 came, all these precautions and arrangements came to naught. There was no flood, earthquake or cyclone to protect the data center from. There was no power failure to ride on the power backup. There was no security incident from which infrastructure and data had to be protected. All these were hale and hearty.
Yet, there was threat of business discontinuity looming large, because it was people, the most important asset of an organization, who were impacted. They could not move. They were more than willing to work. The challenge lay in allowing them to work—from wherever they were, with no inconvenience to them, no loss of productivity and with no major security issues.
How business continuity was achieved is nothing short of a war story. It proved once again that the human intelligence and resilience, with the broader set of tools available, is far more effective than the fixed detailed planning. This does not negate the need of planning. All it makes us rethink is that no plan is foolproof, as no one is wise enough. Good set of talent, agility to respond and the right technology tools in general may be far more effective than fixed plans.
You are as strong as your weakest digital link
While work from home may have been the most visible response to the disruption brought by the pandemic, by no means, it was the only one. Plant workers could not work from home. Transporters could not work from home. Despite so much rise in the movement of bits, movement of atoms (to borrow a Negroponte phrase) is inevitable. Supply chain had to run effectively to ensure that essential goods moved.
And there was the problem. In many organizations, especially those dealing with a lot of movement of physical goods, had digitized only parts of their supply chain. While that still helped them by making those sub-processes more efficient, in a situation like this, it was not the efficiency but the running of it that was in doubt.
Take the example of one common process that was still manual in many organizations: approvals. Some of the approvals still happened through paper in many organizations. The new situation created two challenges. The bigger challenge was that those authorized to approve were not physically available. Another issue was also the safety of people, when a piece of paper changed hands.
As a result, many processes were halted. Some managed to allow and implement digitization almost overnight. Some others struggled for quite some time.
Don’t touch. Contactless now has a whole new meaning
Last but not the least, the pandemic created a unique situation, where touching something or someone became risky. And it did impact a lot of aspect of business. From approval to payment to handling logistics shipments, to even checking into the office or plants. All these require solutions that needed to work without contact.
Thankfully, technology was available. People had not just thought about the applications. Even if they did, they had not felt the need for it.
Contactless, which was a payment industry terminology, suddenly became ubiquitous. Hotels now give you contactless menu which you can get by scanning a QR code through your phone. Your mobile phone can allow you to check into an office or operate a lift. This is still in the evolution phase. Going forward, we are likely to see far greater application of contactless technology—from QR code to Bluetooth to IoT.
Call it Life 4.0.
Even as we are at the end of 2020, there is no visibility related to the end of the pandemic. As pundits tell us—and all of us realize through our common sense—even if the pandemic situation improves, there are some changes that will stay with us.
But we still do not know what the new balance will be, as they say, the New Normal. What we know for sure is that 2020 has given us that New Normal, whatever it is.
That makes it a year like no other. At least not in the lifetime of most of us.