The current state of the world is alarming. The COVID-19 virus is not only disrupting businesses and economies – it is taking away loved ones, it is separating friends and families, it is disrupting the education of young adults and children and it is seeding fear in communities. But while the media is dominated with doom and gloom at the moment – and we do need these reports – I believe it is worth stopping for a moment to consider the fact that if the pandemic happened ten or fifteen years ago, many businesses – and government agencies – would have closed down. You could argue that the world wasn’t as globally connected then as it is now. And to an extent that is correct – the numbers of air travellers increased up until the end of 2019. But even in 2005, the world was still a very global place – economies relied on cross-border commerce as much then as they do now.
Depending on your business or industry 10-15 years ago:
- Staff couldn’t have effectively worked from home. And if they did, collaboration would have been hard (if not impossible outside of the usual voice services). Teleconference services would have needed to be booked.
- Remote access would have been painful and slow – relying heavily on VPNs over slower internet connections.
- Software would have mainly been running in company datacentres – with very little SaaS-based applications. These applications were often designed for LAN access…
- Those lucky few with a Blackberry or iPhone might have had access to email – everyone else would have needed to go into the office to get work done.
But worse than this would have been our customer engagements. While eCommerce had healthy adoption by 2005, it often relied on very manual processes – and it was mainly focused on consumer products and services – B2B adoption was still a number of years away. And, for many businesses, it represented a tiny proportion of their revenue. Small companies didn’t often have the web presence to compete with the big players. But if I look at the big fast-food giants in Australia (e.g. McDonalds and KFC) – these companies didn’t have a web or mobile ordering until a few years ago, and even more recently for home delivery services. Any company that had to shut down their face-to-face contact would have likely fallen back on their contact centres – but even these would have been impacted as the ability to route calls to remote or home-working call centre agents barely existed then – so they would have been understaffed or closed due to an infection being discovered…
Today’s digital connectivity has the opportunity to save lives. Less physical contact means less people being exposed to – and spreading – the virus.
If this pandemic had happened 10-15 years ago, many small AND large businesses would have had to shut their doors very quickly. Very early in the cycle, businesses would have had to make the decision to shut their doors straight away, or risk accelerating the infection rates by having staff continue to attend the office or contact centre. So if there is one small positive we can take away, it is that our digital investments are paying off very quickly. The ability to continue to trade, continue to sell, continue to do business in such a market as we are facing today and tomorrow is priceless. I can purchase goods and services online, register my car without leaving my desk, upgrade or change my health insurance without speaking to a single human being. Most businesses have the ability to have their employees access many of their critical applications wherever they are located. Our accountants can still pay and send bills, HR can hire for open positions, product teams can continue to innovate on the products and services they offer.
Don’t get me wrong – business survival is not guaranteed. This is why I implored governments to aim their stimulus spending towards small and medium businesses digital initiatives – as cafes, retailers, bars and restaurants close down across cities, states and countries, many are now lamenting their immature online presence, their lack of delivery and their lack of pre-ordering. If you have any doubt about this, check your local Facebook group – it is full of small businesses putting up images of menus in the hope that customers will reach out directly to keep their businesses running. If these businesses are given incentives to build digital services quickly, they might see less of a slowdown in business.
COVID-19 will definitely stress test our digital assets and strategies. Just recently, the Australian government’s citizen-facing portal crashed as too many citizens logged on to register for welfare. This forced many people out into government shop-fronts – putting themselves, the staff and all connected families and friends at risk of catching the virus. I also heard today of a bank that called many of its staff back to the office as the VPN could not cope with the number of users and volume of traffic! If you have not already, you will quickly find out how your digital capabilities are performing – where you need extra capacity, where services are running smoothly, where you need to rethink process design or where you need to consider re-crafting this approach for the fully digital era.
But stay safe – listen to the advice of medical experts and act on that advice. A senior medical officer recently stated that social distancing is the only way that we will overcome this virus – so stay safe and stay home (if you can!). But also take the time to review your digital capabilities – start making moves now to ensure they help your business stay afloat – or your government agency to keep serving citizens in times of restricted trading or shutdowns.