9 digital transformation truths that the pandemic rewrote

The pandemic changed widely accepted beliefs about how to achieve digital transformation goals. Consider how these new truths affect everything from customer expectations to the makeup of teams
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In the seeming blink of an eye, the pandemic changed everything: how we worked, shopped, went to school, entertained ourselves, got medical or mental health care, engaged with government agencies, and connected with friends and family. “The world shut down and everything was forced to adapt,” says MJ Johnson, managing director in the product and experience lab at business and technology consultancy West Monroe. “Every part of society was affected.”

The pandemic has also rocked many of the core tenets of digital transformation. “With a forced change of this magnitude, we witnessed the impossible become possible,” Johnson says. “Projects that would have taken years took just weeks, business models that were dependent on being ‘in-person’ successfully pivoted to being delivered digitally, and customers ultimately adapted and found businesses that pivoted gracefully throughout the pandemic. Our assumptions and beliefs have completely changed.”

"The result was accelerated, barrier-breaking service delivery."

Telemedicine went from its pre-pandemic infancy stage to mainstream in weeks. Digital grocery and restaurant deliveries went through the same hyper-speed evolution. Government agencies also accelerated the transformation of how they did business, notes David Egts, chief technologist, North America Public Sector, Red Hat. “We went from waiting in lines in government offices to digitized services,” Egts says. “It changed how citizens voted and how residents received government critical services like unemployment insurance. In many cases, agency roadmaps were accelerated by two to three years, because the pandemic forced them to challenge long-held beliefs and assumptions. The result was accelerated, barrier-breaking service delivery."

Indeed, “one significant impact of Covid-19 has been to amplify what’s possible with digital transformation,” says David Tareen, director of AI and analytics at SAS.

[ Get answers to key digital transformation questions and lessons from top CIOs: Download our digital transformation cheat sheet. ]

9 post-pandemic rules for digital transformation

Considering the following nine post-pandemic rules for digital transformation and the IT and business leaders and teams doing the work.

1. Truth: A digital front end is no longer enough

Pre-pandemic, many companies had a digital roadmap that signaled an intention to become digital. When in-person customer options were suddenly eliminated from the menu for companies, it quickly became clear how few companies had made the investment to enable a fully digital architecture and operating model.

“The pandemic exposed firms who didn’t have a truly connected consumer experience. This was acutely felt in the retail, financial services, and telco industries where in-person experiences were far more common than digital,” says Colm Sparks-Austin, president and managing director at Capgemini Canada.

“Regardless of industry, a digital front-end can no longer mask the lack of back-end investments on core systems,” Sparks-Austin says. “The biggest impact of Covid-19 was the speed and certainty at which companies must achieve a true digital presence with their consumers.”

2. Truth: Slow and steady no longer wins the race

Multi-year, cost-neutral initiatives, typically situated within the IT budget, have given way to shorter-term (one year or less) projects.

Multi-year, cost-neutral initiatives, typically situated within the IT budget, have given way to shorter-term (one year or less) projects that deliver real returns. The green light projects are those that “deliver return on investment of 5 to 10 times and incorporate profit-and-loss-level metrics that affect top and bottom lines – with a heavy focus on client experience,” Sparks-Austin says.

Sure, autonomous automobile or drone delivery services will still be multi-year efforts. But “other digital transformation projects move much faster,” Tareen of SAS says. “Easier access to the cloud, as-a-service capabilities, and mobile-first has enabled organizations of all types to quickly piece together capabilities that transform their highly manual processes into more efficient digital experiences.”

3. Truth: Change management is not an excuse

Change management, legacy technology challenges, transformational risk – these became givens during the pandemic, not excuses for needing more time to beat challenges. “The pandemic was a force of nature and organizations had to react and transform,” says Yugal Joshi, vice president of digital, cloud, and application services research for Everest Group. Organizations now realize that agility and nimbleness in responding to challenging business scenarios are key.

4. Truth: Work no longer means a shared office

"Many of us were commuting just because it’s what you did. I am a firm believer that the pandemic disrupted that belief forever."

How much time and resources did workers spend commuting to shared physical spaces pre-pandemic, and what was the core belief that drove that behavior? This is an important question to consider, says Johnson of West Monroe. “The world had a commonly shared understanding of work, where most populations gathered in the same space to get the job done,” Johnson notes. “Certainly, this is still true and must be for large parts of the economy, but many of us were commuting just because it’s what you did. I am a firm believer that the pandemic disrupted that belief forever.”

The adoption of digital collaboration tools en masse that occurred in 2020 is just the beginning of what might be possible, Johnson says. Many organizations will find that a certain degree of remote working is better in the long term for productivity, sustainability, and employee well-being.

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

5. Truth: Automation is not optional

The pandemic has forced businesses to accelerate digital transformation efforts. However, global technology skills shortages will make satiating the demand for digital transformation staff even more challenging. “The new way forward includes a balanced mix of technology for AI-powered automation capabilities and cognitive processing as well as high-value skills with specific industry and domain expertise to help drive transformation efforts,” says Sparks-Austin.

6. Truth: Business leaders don't always lead change

“One more unfortunate truth was organizations realizing though business-IT alignment is critical, in the time of desperate need the IT team had to step up significantly more than the business,” says Joshi. “This showed organizations the importance of the IT organization in digital transformation.”

7. Truth: You need renaissance people, not just niche specialists

The skilled digital worker has become even more valuable. However, Sparks-Austin says, "Successful digital transformations rely on multi-skilled, agile employees who will constantly reskill and adapt to the ever-accelerating technology landscapes.”

IT leaders who want to recruit and retrain these renaissance professionals will have to provide a meaningful employee experience, Sparks-Austin says. “That includes a focus on work styles, corporate social responsibility, and overall impact on the environment. Each organization’s ability to attract and retain this talent will be the single biggest shift of this century.”

8. Truth: Digital transformation matters for knowledge workers and frontline workers

Covid-19 revealed that there are two types of workers when it comes to digital transformation: knowledge workers and frontline workers. Most organizations had digital tools in place to help their knowledge workers stay connected, engaged, and productive during lockdowns.

Frontline workers were another story. “These truly deskless workers were often left behind,” says Eugene Signorini, vice president of product strategy and marketing at mobile digital adoption platform provider Skyllful. “These workers didn’t have the luxury of working from home. And they’ve traditionally been classified as second-class citizens when it comes to digital transformation, lacking the collaboration, learning, and support tools they need. It was a wake-up call for many companies.”

9. Truth: Big organizations can learn from smaller ones right now

Big organizations have the biggest budgets, staff, and resources to drive change, so they should be good at transformation, right? Not so fast, says Johnson of West Monroe. “The pandemic gave new opportunity to small, scrappy, nimble, and innovative companies that could pivot on a dime and flip their business model overnight. The small and adaptive companies of today are setting the bar for speed and impact of change – and are becoming the inspiration for bigger organizations.” The pandemic caused organizations of all shapes and sizes to digitally adapt.

[ Culture change is the hardest part of digital transformation. Get the digital transformation eBook: Teaching an elephant to dance. ]

Stephanie Overby is an award-winning reporter and editor with more than twenty years of professional journalism experience. For the last decade, her work has focused on the intersection of business and technology. She lives in Boston, Mass.

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