Why Now Is the Time to Accelerate Digital

September 11, 2020

Contributor: Chris Howard

The current world context is pushing organizations to make better-informed, faster decisions to survive in a rapidly changing environment.

As organizations begin to shift from the recovery phase of COVID-19 to the renewal, many are focused on what comes next and capitalizing on the changes made to the business during COVID-19. The Gartner Board of Directors survey highlighted that seven out of 10 boards have accelerated digital business initiatives in the wake of COVID-19 disruption.  

One question we hear frequently when discussing digital business strategy now is, “Why is this digitalization different from digital prior to COVID-19?” And the answer is pace — the pace of adoption. With a potentially short window of time before a resurgence of the virus or other related disruption, organizations need to act quickly.

The digital part isn’t new, but the acceleration part is crucial. This is about the urgent adoption of established patterns, many of them digital, but also patterns of psychology (how do we survive), organization (are we equipping people with the best skills and cohorts?) and governance (do we need so much ritual, or can we move faster?) 

Organizations have to change, now. There is no option to continue on as they have. It has to be done to preserve the business and the future of the business. When economics are going as well as they had been, more or less, for the past decade, organizations didn’t have to make the hard choices or tackle underlying faults. Pre-COVID business and operating models could probably improve with certain digitalization efforts, but why change what’s working well enough? Now, the path forward is clear: Accelerate digital business or risk the survival of the organization. 

Organizations need to be making better-informed and faster decisions, focusing on automation, real-time risk assessment and mitigation, continuous value delivery and agile strategy making. And they need to be doing it now. 

“The acceleration we are experiencing is the search for new solutions in the face of broken assumptions”

Disruption is useful: We need it to make progress. The acceleration we are experiencing is the search for new solutions in the face of broken assumptions. We have an opportunity to make things better, rather than falling back on what worked before. Over time, we will build a new set of business practices, forever changed by COVID-19. 

What does digital business acceleration look like? 

The answer to this question will depend on your organization's strategies and business. Consider the larger goals and initiatives that drive the business — how can those be improved through effective use of known technology and information design patterns?

Consider automation in the call center. Many companies have been increasing this specific automation over the years, but now implementation is accelerating. COVID-19 meant people couldn’t physically be in call centers, and at the same time, many call centers experienced a massive uptick in demand.

Chatbots become an efficient, but more importantly now, a necessary, digital tool for the organization. It’s not a new technology; it’s just that organizations were pushed to find solutions. Now they have to be adopted at an accelerated rate. 

How will we speed up?

Acceleration has some specific requirements, both in the digital and the physical worlds. First, you must banish drags: Remove those things that will slow you down. This could mean modernizing a piece of your legacy technology or removing unnecessary ritual from change management processes.

Second, you need fuel to boost you: These patterns, like call center automation or social marketing (proven implementations), can get you moving quickly. Third, you must adjust resources: Shift funding from less valuable initiatives to those focused on new channels, products or services that will have greater, faster returns.

Finally, seize value: Sweat the assets you own, like cloud platforms, that are likely underutilized and that could be used for rapid innovation and resilience.

What should we stop doing?

In the spirit of banishing drags, a number of Gartner analysts had a brainstorming thread with a simple question: What is the one thing that you should stop doing to go faster? Here are a few of their suggestions:

  • Stop trying to centralize everything: Provide autonomy and accountability throughout the organization
  • Stop believing (and working toward the idea) that digital will transform your company into Google or Amazon or Alibaba. Digital transformation doesn’t alter the purpose of your company’s existence.
  • Stop staying in your lane. Change lanes to follow new demand.
  • Stop pining for the “good old days” of January 2020 and get on to January 2021.
  • Stop innovation initiatives that were conceived pre-pandemic. Reset. Then only restart innovation initiatives that make sense for the post-pandemic organization.
  • Stop doing staff appraisals/performance reviews (this year only).

What will digital business do for us?

Digital will “remote-stabilize” the organization to the right mix of remote and in-person business, which is a much-needed exercise after the initial pandemic push. It will enable organizations to react to external context and enable them to move resources in response to emergent needs in society. We’re looking for new patterns of scale that can be applied now, but can also be adjusted for future disturbances. 

Right now, clients are focused on “Right-Scale”, which is asking things like “What do I keep? What do I change?” For example, this could mean moving aggressively to cloud providers instead of using an on-site data center. Essentially, these are projects that organizations might have been doing before, but now they’re being done with more urgency and speed.

Another part of this is “Right-Balance” which is examining the balance between traditional analog options and digital. COVID-19 drove this transformation more quickly than some organizations would have otherwise chosen. 

Working toward the future, organizations should be applying digital business acceleration to these dimensions:

  1. The “everything customer,” who requires both deep personalization and ironclad privacy
  2. Right-scoped growth, which may involve new customer segments and the abandonment of incumbent value propositions
  3. A composable technology foundation that balances efficiency with resilience
  4. An adaptable workforce, equipped with the skills, processes, information and autonomy to flex in the face of disruption
  5. Any-scale operations that can spin up and down with demand and unforeseen circumstances

Part of this conversation can begin with strategic scenario planning, which facilitates agile strategy setting. As a tool, it offers a way to frame the discussion about hypothetical future business scenarios — and helps business leaders to identify future uncertainties and develop suitable action plans to respond to change and capture opportunity. Scenarios enable you to determine suitable action plans or strategies for different possible futures, framing strategic planning conversations right down to the functional level.

Read more: What Functional Leaders Should Know About Scenario Planning

To quote every television commercial, these are unprecedented times. But we were more prepared for them than we realized. A pragmatic optimism is emerging, grounded in known practices and patterns. We need to stay open, curious and future-focused. Now is the time to renew our businesses, our work and ourselves. Don’t miss this opportunity.

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Chris Howard is Gartner Chief of Research and leads the Senior Content Leadership Board at Gartner, where he regularly interacts with and advises CEOs, board members and other senior executives at the world's largest enterprises.

The Digital Business Acceleration Imperative.

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