How will digital technologies and AI help enterprises reimagine the world of business, and indeed the world itself, as people come to terms with the long-term implications of living with pandemics such as current one? And how can enterprises build resilient organisations as economies begin to open up. These were some of the topics that a group of experts discussed in a ‘tweetathon’ organised by Forbes India, in partnership with Microsoft recently.
The experts spoke of what has changed in the last few months and how businesses are reacting both in the short term and to build resilience and prepare for the longer term. They also spoke of imperatives for managers, such as the importance of being empathetic to the needs of their teams.
Resilience is vital
Anand Nandkumar, associate professor at Indian School of Business had this to say: The past few months have seen the focus shift from competitive advantage to resilience. Businesses are thinking about how to also survive crises while still being able to compete well during normal times. Resilience is the new buzz word.
KS Viswanathan, vice president (Industry Initiatives) at NASSCOM, had this to say: Resilience and recovery have been two big words these past few Months. The focus has been on business continuity planning and contingency planning for both long and short term. It’s crucial, now more than ever, to be empathetic towards employees and create a collaborative ecosystem.
Many organisations have seen years of digital transformation compressed into months, said Meetul Patel, executive director, strategic growth at Microsoft India. Digital engagement with customers, work-from-anywhere teams, and even new services that are digitally-enabled have come to fore. So the old assumptions have been tested.
“Absolutely agree. Businesses are questioning the past so much so that we have now move to monthly budgeting exercises rather than annual ones,” said Nandkumar. Agility and staying aware of the changing consumer preferences and the new business reality are incredibly important.
Additionally, there is sharpening focus on simulating multiple possibilities including scenario planning and event-based planning so that organisations can be better prepared, said Sudipta Ghosh, partner and data and analytics leader in India at the consultancy PwC.
One key aspect which has changed is that past assumptions and trends may not be the best indicator of the future. Hence there is an enhanced focus on sensing the demand and the supply disruptions. Touch-less and contactless paradigm has required organisations to move towards digitalisation, which is both safe and flexible.
Many organisations have been cobbling together point solutions to help employees connect with each other, with customers, and with suppliers, Microsoft’s Patel said. This has helped respond to the urgency of the situation, but not for the emerging, more digital, more tech-intense world.
Now, organisations have to turn the ‘quick fix’ into a ‘digital capability’ by building out structured platforms to provide the resiliency and competitiveness for a new world of work, new models of engagement, and even new propositions and new business models. The cloud and edge provide the compute fabric for a world where everything has some ‘digital DNA.’ With the immense number of connected devices providing huge volumes of data, AI becomes necessity to make sense of and react to the signals from this network.
“Go digital,” said Viswanathan. Unlocking digital opportunities, leveraging data and exploring data based analysis in governance are great ways to look at employment in the future. Skilling programs will also play a role in ensuring the workforce is equipped with skills of the future.
The IT sector will play a huge role in accelerating digital and deploying more tech solutions in critical sectors, he said. Tech will be key in containing Covid-19. Over four million IT sector workers have successfully moved to work-from-home, and are delivering sustained business value, which will be the new normal.
“Spending on digital infrastructure, tools and training will likely see a massive uptick and I don't think these will just be temporary trends,” Nandkumar said. As a company, adapting employees to the new world will be very important. So re-skilling will be important. There is also a need for large investments to generate demand and rekindle buying behaviour. This will indirectly stimulate employment.
On whether consumer and business preferences have changed, he responded that they have. For one, when times are uncertain, people generally cut back on current spending and focus on future consumption. Even the nature of current consumption will likely undergo a massive change. Companies will make investments in digital infrastructure and up-skilling.
Ghosh at PwC added: This is also a great time for innovation because there is a necessity and such disruptions, as Covid-19, give us the right incentive to think out of the box. Innovation can be both from selecting the right product as well as focussing on internal processes.
Fast paced adaptation will be the key and this will put a lot of emphasis on both strategising and implementation, said Nandkumar. Speed will be very important. This implies that managers will have to rethink about how decisions are made. Decision making needs to be decentralised yet coordinated.
Dealing with change
All Organisations are involved in different types of client-vendor relationships, both economically and socially. An event like the Covid-19 outbreak, which disrupts all humanity, has prompted business leaders to shed many old assumptions and rethink about stability and safety of their employees, customers, vendors and clients, rather than just look for plain financial gain, said Muktabh Mayank, Co-founder at Parallel Dots, which offers image recognition technologies to retailers. They have also been forced to think about their businesses’ short and long term evolution with the changes Covid-19 is bringing.
Not all business lessons are redundant, said Mayank. Probably the most important part of the business world is change, and the best businessmen are the ones who adapt well to change. That said, a lot of management theories will change as the world evolves quickly.
The focus for an organisation is now to ‘stick to the knitting’, said Ghosh. Manage cash flow, be agile and innovative to stay relevant and focus on sustainability even at the short term cost of growth.
The response to the pandemic for any company should have four parts which need to be executed fast, said Mayank: These are understanding how the customers’ perspectives have changed during the pandemic; coming up with a plan to scale, adapt, pivot or fold according to the findings; changing messaging of the offerings quickly to sync with customers’ expectations; and in a black swan like the current event, making sure supply is consistent.
To execute any of these tasks fast and to scale, there is no other good way apart from using AI, he added.
For example, AI enables both small and big firms to do market research at scale. This can include remote analysis of retail space images, understanding how consumers are shopping, chatbots collecting customer experiences and so on. There are even proponents of the use of satellite images and crowd visualisations to understand how society’s behaviour has switched during/after the pandemic.
AI and ML have been great tools to aid decision making, Nandkumar at ISB said. They will likely free up the managers from making mundane decisions so that they can refocus on adaptation which requires solving new and hitherto unfamiliar problems.
Re-skilling and adapting to the changing expectations of the labour market and employers will be crucial, said PwC’s Ghosh. Now would also be a great time to invest in building new capabilities at a fraction of the cost than if everything had been fine and the economies were growing well.
He added that it will also be important to pick up the soft skills of inter-personal relationships, negotiation, team work, leadership in the digitally connected world, which will potentially be the next normal going forward even beyond Covid-19.
There are some imperatives for managers across the board, according to Ghosh: Leading by example, listening to the skip levels, staying grounded and humble, supporting teams, focussing on the purpose, strengthening the processes and not just on the immediate results are some of things which business leaders can practice.
Nandkumar agreed: “Empathy will be very important.” As employees are trying to adapt to this new normal, lending them a patient ear and a helping hand will likely motivate them to give their best.
In conclusion, enterprises have to transform from the quick short-term solutions they have deployed to robust tech platforms for the long term. And they will use AI-enabled digital technologies to do this. Old beliefs, practices and norms will questioned and tested. New ways of working and collaborating will emerge that will put empathy at the heart of the playbook for managers.
Disclaimer: The views, suggestions and opinions expressed here are the sole responsibility of the experts. No Forbes India journalist was involved in the writing and production of this article.