The impact of COVID-19 on Technology, People & Geopolitics

covid trends

Author: Sethu Janardhanan

Summary

Accelerated pace of change: Businesses are scrambling to adapt post-COVID-19. Late starters may never catch up.
Ubiquitous technology: Life is happening online. For companies, digital technology and Artificial Intelligence are immediate needs, not long-term wants.
Renewed focus on people: Personal health and wellness are paramount. Companies are rethinking their approach to culture and employee development.
Geopolitics in the foreground: Nationalism and uncertainty are on the rise. Organisations need more robust contingency planning.

The novel coronavirus is accelerating the already rapid pace of change in nearly every aspect of our lives. As businesses adapt to operating in a post-pandemic world, even entrenched ‘in-person’ activities such as manufacturing, supply chain, buying a house, or consulting a doctor are transforming, perhaps irreversibly. In this article, we’ll examine three major themes: digital technology, people, and geopolitics.

Theme I: Technology

It’s the age of e-everything. E-commerce and e-learning are just the tips of the iceberg. Banking and financial services, entertainment, health, and fitness are all online. You can even pay a virtual visit to a property before buying. Businesses are embracing the Internet to reach buyers afraid to venture out. New business models are emerging. Telemedicine, formerly considered a poor substitute for an in-person consultation, has become the preferred option in just a few months.

Digital adoption and digital transformation are must-haves. These expressions have been on companies’ strategy slides for years. COVID-19 has forced companies to compress multi-year implementation plans into mere weeks to trim costs, improve efficiency, and stay afloat in a shrinking market. Businesses are discovering that embedding digital in their enterprise isn’t as complicated as they expected. Adoption has grown by orders of magnitude amongst brick-and-mortar retailers that were under 2% penetrated six months ago. Companies that were digital natives before the pandemic have a commanding head start that will be very hard to beat.

COVID-19 makes agility essential. Artificial Intelligence makes businesses agile. Buyer and supplier behavior changed suddenly as the pandemic spread. The future holds more sudden shifts. Traditional forecasting models are reactive and not dynamic enough to keep up. Integrated AI speeds up analysis, adjusts to new events quickly, and uncovers incipient trends, allowing businesses to adapt faster. Buyers already expect hyper-personalized treatment from online sellers as a matter of course. New-minted e-businesses that don’t harness AI will lose cross-sell and upsell opportunities – and at worst, their customers.

Theme II: People

The focus is firmly on wellness, health, and safety. COVID-19 has drastically altered our daily routines. We work from home, exercise and play, eat and learn, entertain ourselves at home. There’s a pervasive sense of unease as hygiene awareness grows. Perhaps inevitably, personal health and wellness services are experiencing a boom. Sophisticated physical fitness and mindfulness apps, telemedicine, and health advisory services are in demand. Personal trainers and yoga instructors are finding vast numbers of new students online. Sanitation and personal protective equipment manufacturers are raking in orders. Lucrative new markets are arising for rapid sanitation and safe waste disposal services. There’s a never-before-seen fashion trend: designer masks. Even some new car models are claimed to be ‘virus-proof.’

Companies are redesigning their culture for the dispersed workforce. Industries not traditionally digital have been forced to go down the remote work road, only to discover lower costs, higher flexibility, and improved productivity. But a distributed workforce can’t hold together under the old cultural norms. Companies of all kinds must re-examine their hiring, employee engagement, talent development, and internal communications strategies. COVID-19 is accelerating the change already initiated by the de-aging of the workforce: people practices even in old-industry companies may come to resemble those of the newest-age digital trendsetters. Shared values, vision, and mission supplemented by discipline aren’t adequate: post-pandemic, trust, autonomy and the intermingling of personal and professional will influence conversations about corporate culture.

Theme III: Geopolitics

Supply chains need a redesign for resilience. Contingency planning needs stress-testing. Politicians appealing to nationalistic sentiments for electoral mileage isn’t a new phenomenon, but COVID-19 has stoked xenophobia to a level not seen in a generation. As countries turn their backs on international trade, global supply chains are teetering on the brink. A complete redesign may be needed for companies to survive post-pandemic. Traditional success metrics like lowest cost, minimum redundancy, and maximum efficiency may need to be dropped. Instead, reliability, flexibility, agility, and adaptability will be the new watchwords of a supply chain resilient against geopolitical shocks. The convention of planning in-depth for the ‘normal’ and maintaining untested contingency plans is no longer enough. The speed at which the pandemic disrupted global business is a powerful indicator that even short-term corporate planning must give primacy to geopolitical and macroeconomic uncertainty.

We can’t yet know how these themes will interact to affect the future of business, but we don’t believe life will slow down post-pandemic. Companies that cut complexity, focus on the basics, embrace digital technology, and flex quickly will thrive in the new world of rapid change. CXOs will need to give more attention to near-term challenges, think operationally during times of high uncertainty, scrutinize controllable metrics, and employ the latest, reliable, and actionable analytics in decision-making. Companies that recognized the importance of digital early have adapted faster. After COVID-19, the rest may never catch up.

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