First, let me share a couple of general observations. Currently, we are still in the eye of the storm. Many are unable to see any light at the end of the tunnel. There is quite a bit of negative sentiments, and some fail to see that the situation will ever improve. I am sure similar thoughts occurred during other crises: the 1918 Pandemic (Spanish Flu); the Great Depression of the 1930s; the Dot.com bust of 2001; SARS in 2003; and the Global Financial Crisis/Great US Recession of 2007. During each of these events, a sense of impending Armageddon came over much of the population. Certainly, in each instance, people did experience some personal and social permanent changes, with which they learned to adapt and cope. But, inevitably, the world did go on and Armageddon did not occur.
One of the basic truths I believe, is that humans require and crave interaction with other humans. Think about the videoconferencing applications. The use of these apps grew exponentially as the main communication channel. Instead of just audio, it was audio and video. These mediums greatly assisted society in coping and adapting. Mankind, and the Natural World, will always find a way.
Here are the predictions from the article:
Companies that traffic in digital services and e-commerce will make immediate and lasting gains
Remote work will become the default
Many jobs will be automated, and the rest will be made remote-capable
Telemedicine will become the new normal, signaling an explosion in med-tech innovation
The nationwide student debt crisis will finally abate as higher education begins to move online
Goods and people will move less often and less freely across national and regional borders
After an initial wave of isolationism, multilateral cooperation may flourish
I very much agree with the author’s first prediction. This one is fairly obvious, as it has proven true throughout the crisis with providers such as Amazon, Zoom and others. It is expected to continue into the post COVID world. This is also evident from the findings of the Ecosystm research on the impacts of COVID-19. Organisations intend to continue to use digital technologies, even after the immediate crisis is over (Figure 1).
A Natural State of Equilibrium will Emerge
I believe for each of the areas described in the predictions, there will be various levels of long-term modification. None of them will return to their pre COVID-19 state, as we have all experienced going down the rabbit hole. During the pandemic, due largely to the lockdowns, the pendulum swung significantly towards one side. Many times, when people predict a new view, the current state is considered the New Normal. For me, the relevant question is: Will things stay as they are now, or will there be a new natural state of equilibrium? If so, what will it look like, in each of these areas? I don’t believe there is one answer, or one New Normal for all the dimensions being discussed. I believe a new normal state will potentially be different for each individual, each company/entity and each condition. In a post COVID-19 world there could be 50 shades of grey in each of these areas.
One of the predictions states that remote work will become the default. It must be remembered that part of work is a collaborative effort. While video conferencing has enabled collaborative efforts, the importance of the accidental interaction at the break room, printer, etc. can’t be under-estimated. It is these unscheduled interactions that enable accidental collaboration which can lead to great solutions. Thus, there will be many shades to the Future of Work – there will not be one absolute.
A similar example is a prediction for higher education. Part of the learning process a university offers is interacting with people who are not similar to your background or beliefs. That is one of the benefits of a diverse university. Similar to the corporate environment, many different types of learning environments will enable a person to gain great experiences from the time at university.
The advantage of all these alternatives will be the additional options and benefits to people post COVID compared to the pre COVID-19 world. It will present many great opportunities for entrepreneurs and innovators, as well as end-users and consumers. It will create new and iterative ‘middle spaces’. It will be possible for a David to emerge and challenge a Goliath(s).
The two Chinese characters for the word ‘crisis’ are “danger” and “opportunity”. Just as we are in a dangerous time now, it has also presented new and different opportunities. Those opportunities will continue to exist even when the danger has passed. I am also reminded of the old expression “May you live in interesting times”. It very much applies to all of us now and in the future. I wish the same for all of you.
Organisations are on a fast track to digitalisation. The Ecosystm Digital Priorities in the New Normal study finds that 60% of organisations anticipate increased use of digital technologies for process automation, even after the COVID-19 restrictions are lifted. One of the key challenges that these organisations will face is the lack of internal digital skills – especially in emerging technologies. One of the success metrics of any technology adoption is employee uptake. Without the necessary skills or understanding of the benefits of emerging technology, employees will largely shy away from digital offerings, even the ones that will make their work more efficient and their lives easier.
Organisations are realising the value of making their workforce future ready.
DBS Instilling Company-Wide Digital Culture
Far-sighted companies are collaborating with technology vendors and professional training providers to promote tech awareness and education to futureproof their workforce. DBS Bank in Singapore has collaborated with AWS to train and upskill 3,000 employees – including the leadership team – with AI and machine learning skills through gamification in a DBS x AWS DeepRacer League.
The AWS DeepRacer Leagues have been previously organised in several parts of the world, but the DBS x AWS DeepRacer will be the first to be organised at this scale. The league will enable DBS employees to get their hands-on AI and machine learning tutorials online. They will then have the opportunity to test out their new skills in programming a 3D racing simulator and iteratively fine-tune their models and compete with each other. The learning program is entirely cloud-based and aims to ingrain digital skills in the workforce.
DBS has won several accolades for their digital transformation and innovation initiatives, and they continue to experiment with emerging technologies. In 2019, DBS digitalised and simplified end-to-end credit processing, setting the foundation for advanced credit risk management using data analytics and machine learning. They have also deployed an AI-powered engine for self-service digital options to its retail banking customers. Taking their employees along with them on this journey is a wise move.
Ecosystm Principal Advisor, Ravi Bhogaraju says, “With the increasing use of automation, AI and machine learning, the nature of work and businesses is transforming rapidly. This is creating opportunities for processes to be automated and increasing the use of AI and Deep Learning into the business processes of the organisation. Industry value chains are transforming – AI and machine learning is adding automation, analytics and predictive intelligence to the portfolio. The recent news of DBS and AWS partnering to upskill the bank’s workforce underscores the value of creating a future ready workforce.”
“Such upskilling efforts add industry-specific context to make them more effective. BCG refers to this as ‘Human + AI’. A recent study from BCG and MIT shows that 18% of companies in the world that are pioneering AI are making money with it. Those companies focus 80% of their AI initiatives on effectiveness and growth, taking better decisions – not replacing humans with AI to save costs.”
Government Focus on Digital Skills Upgrade
This week, Singapore also saw another initiative to bridge digital skills gaps – this time from the public sector. In 2018, the Government launched its Smart Nation Scholarship program to attract and nurture talent, and later involve them in various departments to drive Singapore’s Smart Nation initiatives. The most recent Smart Nation Scholarship program 2020 attracted 723 applicants (17% more than the previous year). This is a slightly different approach, aimed at attracting digital native employees and mentoring them for digital leadership. After completing their studies, the 15 scholarship recipients are set to join public sector agencies such as Cyber Security Agency of Singapore (CSA), Government Technology Agency (GovTech), and Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA), to give the younger generation an opportunity to co-create the country’s Smart Nation vision.
Bhagaraju says, “Both private and government institutions are working to enhance workforce skills, improve marketability and making the workforce future ready. Industry 4.0 and the digital revolution have created the need to address the skill gaps that have arisen. Government programs such as the Skills Future program in Singapore, Malaysia’s HRD upskilling program, and the EU-28 European Digital initiative are all making a sustained effort to promote lifelong learning and acquisition/upgrading of skills for their respective citizens with quite successful results, that will have long-term impacts.”
More insights on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and technology areas that will see transformation, as organisations get into the recovery phase, can be found in the Digital Priorities in the New Normal Study
In his report, The Path to Retail’s New Normal, Ecosystm Principal Advisor, Kaushik Ghatak says, “Satisfying their old consumers, now set in their new ways, should be the ‘mantra’ for the retailers in order to survive in the New Normal.” To be able to do so they have to evaluate what their new business requirements are and translate them into technological requirements. Though it may sound simple, it may prove to be harder than usual to identify their evolving business requirements. This is especially difficult because even before the pandemic, the Retail industry was challenged with consumers who are becoming increasingly demanding, providing enhanced customer experience (CX), offering more choices and lowering prices. The market was already extremely competitive with large retailers fighting for market consolidation and smaller and more nimble retailers trying to carve out their niche.
In the New Normal, retailers will struggle to retain and grow their customer base. They will also have to focus aggressively on cost containment. A robust risk management process will become the new reality. But above all else, they will have to innovate – in their product range as well as in their processes. These are all areas where technology can help them. This can come in the form of technology partnerships, adopting hybrid models, increased usage of technology across all channels and investing in reskilling or upskilling the technology capabilities of employees.
Re-evaluating the Supply Chain
One of the first business operation to get disrupted by the current crisis was the supply chain. Ecosystm Principal Advisor, Alea Fairchild says, “Retailers are finding themselves at the front-end of the broken supply chain in the current situation and there is an enormous gap between suppliers and buyers. Retailers will have to aim to combine inventory with local sourcing and become agile and adopt change quickly. This will highlight to them the importance of transparency of information, traceability, and information flow of goods.”
Ecosystm research shows that supply chain optimisation and demand forecasting among the top 5 business solutions that firms in Retail consider using AI for (Figure 1).
“In the New Normal, consumers are going to demand the same level of perfection that they have received and at the same cost. In order to make that possible, at the right time and at a lower cost, automation has to be implemented to improve the supply chain process, fulfill expectations and enhance visibility,” says Ghatak. “Providing differentiated CX is intimately dependent upon an aligned, flexible and efficient supply chain. Retailers will not only need to innovate at the store (physical or online) level and offer more innovative products – they will also need to have a high level of innovation in their supply chain processes.”
Digital Transformation in the Retail Industry
Ecosystm research reveals that only about 34% of global retailers had considered themselves to be digital-ready to face the challenges of the New Normal, before the pandemic. The vast majority of them admit that they still have a long way to go.
With COVID-19, the timeframes for digitalisation have imploded for most retailers. The study to evaluate the Digital Priorities in the New Normal reveals that in Asia Pacific nearly 83% of retailers have been forced to start, accelerate or refocus their Digital Transformation (DX) initiatives (Figure 2).
So, what technology areas will Retail see increased adoption oF?
Fairchild sees retailers adopt IoT, mobility, AI and solutions that deliver personalised experiences such as push notifications. What they are likely to do is blend different aspects of their physical and virtual environment to create a solution for customers. “To address in-store processing, hygiene, safety standards and compliance requirements, retailers will change their processes through a combination of resources, KPIs, automation, task management software and switching the information flow.”
Ghatak thinks automation has a significant role to play in improving both CX and the supply chain. “This is also an opportunity for retailers – both online and in-store – to create a solution experience where technologies such as Augment/Virtual Reality (AR/VR) can help. While retailers are adopting these technologies, with 5G rollouts, there is potential that the adoption will implode in a short time-frame.”
Those retailers that are not re-evaluating their business models and technology investments now will find themselves unprepared to handle the customer expectations when the global economy opens up.
Ecosystm Principal Advisors Kaushik Ghatak and Alea Fairchild were part of a conversation with Ecosystm CEO, Amit Gupta. Watch the video here ?
Keystone Objective. National development goals/SDGs tend to be broad in their scope, and there is a danger of efforts becoming too diffuse when incorporated as part of a national digital strategy. There may, therefore, be a need to sharpen the focus further. One approach might be to identify a keystone objective which can potentially have cascading impacts across the economy and use it for providing strategic focus. Such a keystone would help reduce/eliminate redundancies and wasteful investments. In the corporate sector, Paul O’Neill’s singular focus on “zero worker injuries” while leading Alcoa is an enduring example of success.
A digital strategy that follows the various causal links to achieve the keystone goal of ‘Good Jobs for All’ as an example would end up touching upon every important aspect of the digital economy. It would be an interesting parallel to William Blake’s poem of seeing the “world in a grain of sand”.
Problem Statements. A great way of achieving focus is to identify problem statements and use them to solicit innovative solutions. Some leaders in digital government, e.g., Israel’s Ministry of Health, the Monetary Authority of Singapore, and the EU (among others) have been pursuing such an approach with a fair degree of success.
Guiding Values, Principles and Frameworks
National digital strategies would benefit from the adoption of values, principles, and frameworks that could provide broad guidance to multiple players undertaking their digitalisation initiatives. Having a directional compass would offer strategic alignment and cohesion – while allowing for innovation and creativity on the part of individual actors.
Example of Values. Values are the touchstone to decide what should be prioritised and to what purpose. Openness, positive impact, empathy, and compassion are excellent values adopted by many successful organisations.
Example of Guiding Principles. The UK has recently come up with the Gemini Principles for a National Digital Twins strategy:
Gemini Principles for a National Digital Twins strategy
1. From the digitisation of existing processes to digital by design
2. From an information-centred government to a data-driven public sector
3. From closed data and processes to open by default
4. From a government-led to a user-driven administration
5. From government as a service provider to government as a platform
6. From reactive to proactive policy making and service delivery
Existing organisational structures of government are primarily designed for an analog world and need to change to become more relevant in the digital era. A good starting point for an organisational redesign is the area of digital regulation which often adopts a narrow sectoral approach that is likely to be sub-optimal. Also, the rapid pace of technological change typically results in laws and rules lagging technology.
Digital regulation needs to be designed from the ground up to be cross-sectoral, cross-border, cross-platform, public-private, and technologically oriented. Given that digital technologies are general purpose technologies, their regulation should be cross-sectoral as a horizontal, rather than as a vertical. Given that data flows are often agnostic to national boundaries, and the most valuable tech companies (e.g., social media companies) are outside most national borders, it is essential to bring a cross-border perspective to regulation. Similarly, the oversight of Over the Top content (OTTs), for example, requires cross-platform approaches.
If regulatory actions have to keep pace with technology, it will be necessary for regulators to work upstream with innovators and startups through strong public-private partnerships.
Some countries starting with the UK have established regulatory sandboxesto work closely with the private sector. Regulators will also have to leverage technology better in the future to retain their relevance. A case in point is tackling online harms. It may be impossible to prevent the spread of harmful content on social media, without the use of automated safety technologies.
A sound digital strategy should have a correct sequencing of actions for promoting the digital economy. Foundational elements, e.g., broadband networks, ease of data access, cybersecurity, digital skills, agile regulation, and entrepreneurship deserve precedence over other aspects.
Finally, to paraphrase Boon Siong Neo and Geraldine Chen in their book ‘Dynamic Governance,’ in developing a national digital strategy it is crucial to think ahead, think across, think big, and think again.