Pandemic-Led Digital Transformation; You're Doing it Wrong

The pandemic impacted businesses in many ways, some obvious (hello, work-from-home) and some so subtle that they may not even be apparent for several more years. One aspect pointed to in business and technology press is how the pandemic “sped up” digital transformation.

How true that statement is depends to large degree with how you define digital transformation. I was recently asked for my thoughts on the matter and I thought I’d also share them here.

Was the pandemic a catalyst for digital transformation? Or do you think most companies missed the chance to drive their digital transformation initiatives forward?

Change is hard, even under the best of conditions. We often see a change in moments of crisis (takeovers, bankruptcy, or public scandal) when the call-to-action is finally loud enough to overcome people’s comfort with the status quo.

The pandemic (and ensuing intertwined crises including supply chain disruption, political upheaval, and social unrest) provided plenty of impetus to change. However, companies need to assess whether what changed is simply doing the same thing as before, but over video and instant messaging? Or did they embrace the situation to introduce new norms, processes, and products to their business?

Doing the same thing as before, but more efficiently, is called digitization. It was not a digital transformation. At the beginning of the pandemic, I can’t fault leaders for this response; they did the best they could to maintain any semblance of “normal” even in the most adverse conditions-

-even if that meant attempting rituals that were a poor fit for this new reality. A cringe-worthy example was the rash of post-pandemic “virtual happy hours”. The attempts to connect came from a place of good-intentions: replicate the after-hours get together to foster a sense of team. People assumed they’d do the same thing as before but BYOB over Zoom with everyone working from home.

However, rather than being something to look forward to, these become loathsome, dreary affairs that only reminded people of how weird and isolated the pandemic made all of us. After a day filled with imperfect video meetings, the last thing most people wish for is more time at their makeshift desk, glued to the computer.

Digital transformation requires examining these things that used to work, identifying what was valuable, and imbuing those properties in forms better adapted for change.

How would you advise companies to take on digital transformation in 2022?

Going into 2022, we have a better sense that there will not be an exact return to pre-pandemic “business-as-usual”. Leaders need to stop thinking about Band-Aids and temporary fixes while waiting to return to the way things were before. Instead, leaders need to take a hard look at which parts of their business fared better than others. Which areas were ill-suited to the rapid, consistent change? And how vital is fixing those areas before the next shock?

Digital business design is the holistic organizational configuration of people (roles, accountabilities, structures, and skills), processes (workflows, routines, procedures), and then technology (infrastructure and applications). Someone somewhere is experimenting with providing employees with meaning, connection, and advancement in these necessary new ways. That person can either be at your company or employed by a disruptive rival.

Where are your experiments? How do you measure whether the new ways, made possible by digital technology, are better than the old ways? How are you discovering new, uninterruptible ways of delivering business value? If companies haven’t thought about or answered these questions, now is the time to start.

Update, 2021-11-12 While wargaming likely 2022 API scenerios, I came across this 2022 set of predictions from Forrester (emphasis mine):

“Business leaders are grappling with big employee-related questions right now. When (or if) to return to the office environment and how? We predict that only 10% of firms will shift to a fully remote model, and 30% will go back to a fully in-office model. The remaining 60% of firms will shift to a hybrid model, and one-third of those firms will fail in their first attempt at anywhere work. Why? Because shifting to a hybrid model while still designing meetings, job roles, and promotion opportunities around face-to-face experiences will send productivity plummeting and lead execs to question the model instead of the processes they cling to.

We have not only the opportunity, but the imagination to create new forms. A return to “business-as-normal” is a strategic mirage.