Gartner Research

Lessons From China: Business Model Resilience in the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Outbreak

Published: 23 April 2020


Business model resilience is pivotal to continuity of operations during COVID-19. This research explores six industries, identifying two key characteristics of resilience in China — successfully leveraging digital giants and automation — that CIOs can use to enhance business model resilience.


Key Challenges
  • COVID-19 is having a much bigger impact on continuity of operations than any other recent pandemic. No organization has ever dealt with a crisis of this magnitude.

  • China was the first country to be hit massively by the outbreak, during which some companies in traditional industries have seen great business model resilience. Therefore, China has valuable lessons for CIOs now facing COVID-19.


CIOs seeking to lead innovative and disruptive practices and emerging trends:

  • Develop business model resilience by leveraging digital giants and automation.

  • Leverage digital giants and automation successfully by taking both short- and long-term actions applicable for your circumstances.


This document was revised on 13 May 2020. The document you are viewing is the corrected version. For more information, see the page on

China was the first country massively hit by the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak with over 83,000 infected as of 13 April 2020. After a nearly 50-day strict quarantine, China has reported a 24% loss on the annualized real GDP for the first two months of 2020 (see ). A number of companies will struggle to survive this crisis.

Under such challenging circumstances, China sees some great examples of business model resilience among companies within traditional industries. is the successful process of providing offerings via all possible channels to meet customer needs and maintain customer relationships. This process requires such business capabilities as ecosystem partners, technological capabilities, process capabilities and employee competencies. Raising business model resilience requires innovations on different business model aspects (see Figure 1). It also emphasizes a mindset shift where companies should react to the crisis through innovation rather than pure optimization (e.g., cost optimization).

Figure 1: Ten Aspects of Business Model Innovation

Take Hangzhou Intime Department Store as an example. Beginning 7 February 2020, they partnered with Taobao of Alibaba Group to leverage a new digital channel — social marketing (i.e., livestream sales) — to provide their customers with contactless shopping services. This enables them to maintain relationships with their customers and, more importantly, build up positive cash flows. The revenue from one livestream sales event is reported to equal that of weekly in-store sales before the crisis. The “celebrities” or “micro influencers” they use for livestream sales are their own employees and sales clerks. This is a real example of how companies can raise their business model resilience during the COVID-19 outbreak and also confirms that raising business model resilience requires business model innovations (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: Raising Business Model Resilience Requires Business Model Innovations

There are many more examples of business model resilience across industries in China. This research will:

  • Introduce these examples

  • Examine two key characteristics of resilient business models

  • Recommend relevant short- and long-term actions to CIOs and IT

Recently published research focuses on the process of evaluating and modifying business models to enhance their resilience (see ). As a followup, this research provides real-world references for companies aiming to improve their business model resilience in a crisis.


During the COVID-19 outbreak, two types of Chinese organizations within traditional industries demonstrated strong business model resilience:

The aforementioned Hangzhou Intime Department Store belongs to the first type, while XCMG, a Chinese heavy machinery manufacturing company, is an example of the second type. XCMG has been taking incremental steps toward automation, which enables one employee to operate up to 10 machines simultaneously. Their work resumption rate was over 90% on 22 February, nearly two times higher than the national average.XCMG has proven how automation can play a key role in increasing business model resilience against external, disruptive events like the COVID-19 outbreak. There are more examples from traditional industries other than retail and manufacturing, including entertainment, financial services, healthcare and utilities (see Table 1).

These examples prove that it is crucial for companies to leverage digital giants and automation to develop their business model resilience during the COVID-19 crisis.

CIOs must take both short- and long- term actions to ensure the success of leveraging digital giants and automation. This will be crucial for their companies to enhance business model resilience during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Digital giants can be a provider across the following capabilities:

  • Digital business platforms (e.g., e-commerce, supply chain, digital media platform) that provide market access to the customers

  • Scalable digital cloud infrastructure (e.g., Alibaba Cloud, Amazon Web Services [AWS])

  • Commodity corporate services (e.g., HR, finance, email and office automation)

  • Digital payment platform (e.g., PayPal, Alipay and WeChat Pay)

  • Consumer data and other data, data science and AI services, which you can use to better identify and address customer needs

  • Components embedded in your products and services that add value to them (e.g., voice recognition for chatbot)

A fundamental step for successfully leveraging digital giants is to evaluate your current business models. Then you can decide where to use digital giants to modify your business models. introduces a five-phase approach to evaluate and modify current business models, which enables business model resilience enhancement:

  • Phase 1 Define the business model: Fully understand current business models (e.g., core customer needs, channels, revenue models)

  • Phase 2 Identify uncertainties: Explore uncertainties and threats to current business models

  • Phase 3 Assess impact: Evaluate and even quantify the impact of these uncertainties and threats to the business

  • Phase 4 Design changes: Design business change strategy, plans and initiatives

  • Phase 5 Execute changes: Take action to make changes accordingly

CIOs must participate throughout these phases. Once the company designs the changes in the fourth phase, CIOs should take the lead in identifying the most efficient IT initiatives to facilitate the change successfully (see Figure 3). During this phase, CIOs must determine how digital giants can help deliver the IT initiatives more effectively and efficiently. In Figure 3, of the possible IT change initiatives responding to the business change initiative, “add online business” can be delivered under the support of digital giants. It is proven to be a more efficient and effective approach during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Figure 3: A Framework of Designing IT Change Initiatives

Gartner has had over 70,000 interactions with primarily CIOs and IT leaders to understand their perceptions toward digital dragons, a subset of digital giants. Over 40% of them consider their relationships with digital dragons to be tactical, which means that they think of digital dragons as technology providers (e.g., system integration and implementation, cloud services). Less than 2% of them would think of digital dragons as a strategic business partner (see Figure 4). This is a major mindset issue, which makes CIOs and IT leaders a main “barrier” to companies partnering with digital giants to raise business model resilience.

It is fully understandable that CIOs and IT leaders have concerns about competition from digital giants. However, we have seen many success stories of companies partnering with digital giants. Take ZhongAn Online Property Insurance as an example. Ping An, a leading Chinese insurance company, partnered with Tencent and Ant Financial to launch ZhongAn, the first online digital insurer in China. This partnership reflects a reciprocal relationship where digital dragons provide market access to millions of their users and companies of traditional industries provide their industry know-how and operations. Thus, CIOs should explore more of such partnership examples and change their mindsets in partnering with digital giants.

Figure 4: CIOs’ and IT Leaders’ Perceived Relationships With Digital Dragons

Automation is not something that every company can achieve immediately. However, it enables companies to successfully navigate crisis recovery. Meanwhile, if the COVID-19 pandemic becomes cyclical, automation can enable companies to navigate any future instances of this pandemic. Given that the achievement of automation is largely driven by digital technologies and capabilities, CIOs should take the lead. This research focuses on process automation and provides CIOs with a list of recommendations on how to:

  • Establish business and technology knowledge

  • Select tools and establish teams

Surface opportunities for automation: Use business-facing IT roles (e.g., business relationship manager, IT business partner) to engage with business partners to surface high-value automation opportunities, good indicators of which are those business issues related to:

  • Frequent human error

  • Slow completion time

  • Tedious manual work

Evaluate current process quality and automation suitability: provides an example of this evaluation process, which enables companies to identify suitable and qualified automation opportunities (see Figure 5). Automation navigator in Figure 5 refers to the business-facing IT roles previously mentioned.

Figure 5: Evaluating Current Process Quality and Automation Suitability

Explore technologies and tools for automation: It is essential for CIOs to have a general understanding of the automation technologies before any automation initiatives or projects are carried out. The three key technologies of process automation include:

  • Robotic process automation (RPA) is designed to automate human tasks by emulating the same human transaction steps.

  • Intelligent business process management suites (iBPMS) use a low-code approach that supports the full cycle of process discovery, analysis, design, modeling, monitoring and optimization.

  • Integration platform as a service (iPaaS)comes with ready-to-use workflows and templates for various applications that can be easily configured to integrate applications seamlessly. For more details, see

Table 2 shows an example of various automation tools responding to different business automation requirements. For more details, see

Understand the key roles and responsibilities of the automation team: Every industry may have a different outlook for roles and responsibilities of their automation teams from an IT perspective. In this research, we use the RPA automation team in finance as an example (see Figure 6). This helps CIOs gain an overall understanding of how an automation team may look.

Figure 6: Automation Team in Finance

Align automation opportunities to automation tools: once qualified and suitable automation opportunities are identified, CIOs and IT leaders should try to align these opportunities to best-fit automation tools. introduces an example for this process (see Figure 7).

Figure 7: Align Opportunities to the Best-Fit Automation Tool

Establish the automation team: CIOs should work with their team to evaluate the current skill sets for different automation roles and responsibilities (see Figure 8). Given that the COVID-19 outbreak will significantly impact the company’s cash flow and liquidity, CIOs should not aim to hire all members for the team. Instead, they should think about how to leverage external partners (e.g., digital giants) and technology providers when building their automation team. In the automation piloting stage, this team can be ad hoc. In the long term, this team should be centralized in the IT organization.

Figure 8: Evaluate Current Skill Sets of Different Automation Roles and Responsibilities

Execute automation initiatives and projects: Once CIOs receive buy-in for automation initiatives from the business stakeholders, they should ensure the team is fully prepared to adopt and spread agile management since automation projects require an explorative and iterative approach. Meanwhile, the automation team should apply minimum viable automation to these projects. This is important because internal customers value speed and small solutions over large projects that promise comprehensive automation. Lastly, CIOs need to make sure the automation team constantly gets relevant business stakeholders involved during the automation projects to ensure success. For more details, see

This research provides a list of recommended short- and long-term actions. You can use the most relevant ones to create your IT change plans and initiatives. Act fast to enhance your business model resilience and ensure continuity of operations.

Gartner Recommended Reading


Note 1: Digital Giants and Dragons

The word “digital” in “digital giant” points to a company whose brands, products and services, channels, or business models are primarily electronic in nature. A more traditional IT company would focus more exclusively on information and technology enabling the back-end, internal business processes of its clients.

The word “giant” in “digital giant” refers to size. Gartner suggests using as the entry criterion a market capitalization or estimated valuation of at least $25 billion. Digital giants also tend to have revenues in the tens of billions of dollars, and hundreds of millions of B2C customers. Digital giants are also talent magnets (everyone wants to work for them in the current business climate), and they are very skilled in, and focused on, the use and monetization of data, especially through understanding customers.

The most important characteristics that make a digital giant also a digital dragon are:

Access Research

Already a Gartner client?

To view this research and much more, become a client.

Speak with a Gartner specialist to learn how you can access peer and practitioner research backed by proprietary data, insights, advice and tools to help you achieve stronger performance.

By clicking the "Continue" button, you are agreeing to the Gartner Terms of Use and Privacy Policy.

Gartner research: Trusted insight for executives and their teams

What is Gartner research?

Gartner research, which includes in-depth proprietary studies, peer and industry best practices, trend analysis and quantitative modeling, enables us to offer innovative approaches that can help you drive stronger, more sustainable business performance.

Gartner research is unique, thanks to:

Independence and objectivity

Our independence as a research firm enables our experts to provide unbiased advice you can trust.

Actionable insights

Not only is Gartner research unbiased, it also contains key take-aways and recommendations for impactful next steps.

Proprietary methodologies

Our research practices and procedures distill large volumes of data into clear, precise recommendations.

Gartner research is just one of our many offerings.

We provide actionable, objective insight to help organizations make smarter, faster decisions to stay ahead of disruption and accelerate growth.

Tap into our experts

We offer one-on-one guidance tailored to your mission-critical priorities.

Pick the right tools and providers

We work with you to select the best-fit providers and tools, so you avoid the costly repercussions of a poor decision.

Create a network

Connect directly with peers to discuss common issues and initiatives and accelerate, validate and solidify your strategy.

Experience Information Technology conferences

Join your peers for the unveiling of the latest insights at Gartner conferences.

©2022 Gartner, Inc. and/or its affiliates. All rights reserved. Gartner is a registered trademark of Gartner, Inc. and its affiliates. This publication may not be reproduced or distributed in any form without Gartner’s prior written permission. It consists of the opinions of Gartner’s research organization, which should not be construed as statements of fact. While the information contained in this publication has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable, Gartner disclaims all warranties as to the accuracy, completeness or adequacy of such information. Although Gartner research may address legal and financial issues, Gartner does not provide legal or investment advice and its research should not be construed or used as such. Your access and use of this publication are governed by Gartner’s Usage Policy. Gartner prides itself on its reputation for independence and objectivity. Its research is produced independently by its research organization without input or influence from any third party. For further information, see Guiding Principles on Independence and Objectivity.