Covid-19 digital transformation blue animals

“Monsters” by Ramón Peco is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

By Gordon Fletcher, Alex Fenton and Marie Griffiths

At the beginning of 2020 we celebrated the release of the book, “Strategic Digital Transformation“. As a collection that brings together the combined experiences of academic and business authors, the book makes it very clear that digital transformation requires support from all levels of the organisation. Most importantly, the C-suite, the most senior management and decision-makers in the organisation, must be part of this transformation by being prepared and open to opportunities for change, creativity and disruption.

Covid-19 digital transformation

By March 2020, the need to be strategic and holistic was reinforced when every C-Suite gained an unwanted new member. COVID-19 brought the importance of the external environment to bear on the internal working of a business in new and far-reaching ways. Previously, if the description of the situation is heavily simplified, it was largely the CEO and the Chief Marketing Officer (or those with equivalent roles) who would digest and summarise observations of the external environment for internal consumption. Financial reports would complete the cycle of understanding by documenting the success (or otherwise) of the organisation’s response developed from these initial observations of the outside world.

In contrast to neatly delineated roles and responsibilities, COVID-19 brings the external environment directly to bear on every function and individual of an organisation in a chaotic and haphazard way. COVID-19 forced, and is still forcing, decisions that needed to be done urgently. Possibly done outside the full scrutiny of usual processes or stakeholders. The need for immediate actions also pushed every part of the organisation to seek solutions that were inevitably digital and very often external to the organisation’s existing software. If digital transformation was a necessity in January, by March it had become the number one urgent priority just to ensure business continuity.

At the beginning of 2020 we emphasised the importance of a strategic and holistic perspective in an organisation throughout their digital transformation journey. During a global pandemic, this specific point has become even more crucial and the wording far less restrained. Digital transformation MUST be strategic and holistic otherwise the rushed decisions made in March and April may take months or even years to unpick. Hurried choices and decision-making very rarely set an organisation on a sustainable journey to transformation that can ensure increased digital maturity across the organisation.

Organisations have raced to specific solutions to solve perceived short-term problems. Perhaps, most well documented of all has been the race by businesses to use Zoom as a video conferencing platform to stay in contact. The immediate result has been to reveal the security shortcomings of the software. Without a strategic perspective the move to a specific choice for video conferencing without considering all the available options sets longer term expectations and brings limitations. The result is to unwittingly introduce awkward workarounds and creates incompatibilities with other systems already in the business.

A lack of holistic perspective has also seen different sections within a single organisation use varying solutions to meet the same very short-term needs. While Zoom is again an instructive example, the varied internal use of collaborative online editing tools highlights new issues. Elaborate forms crafted in one system by one department can miserably fail to load on a different system being used by a user in a different department. Workarounds, cutting and pasting, duplication and the emailing back and forth of versions immediately negates any benefits that these systems offer in the longer term.

But even amongst the real human tragedy that COVID-19 has brought across the world, it has also reinforced the observation that humans, particularly in groups, can be at their most innovative at the same time. Innovations are now continuously emerging that reinforce the value of sharing, of transparency and of embracing change. is already documenting many of the ideas that will remain with us long after the pandemic subsides.  Similarly, The Museum of London has started the process of collecting and documenting the social and personal experiences of the period while it is still happening.

COVID-19 is the currently unwanted member of the C-suite. But it is a temporary member. The businesses that embrace the changes that COVID-19 is forcing will make them ultimately stronger for its intrusion.

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