Businesses that mastered digital technologies such as collaboration platforms and built a culture of decision making through organisational innovation have best navigated the age of rapid digitalisation and innovation ushered in by the COVID disruption. So says Didier Bonnet, Affiliate Professor of Strategy and Digital Transformation at IMD Business School.
Bonnet was the co-author (along with MIT researchers George Westerman and Andrew McAfee) of Leading Digital, a seminal work in the early days of digital transformation. He is also a former senior executive at Capgemini where he led the business' global digital transformation practice.
On January 28, 2020, he published a paper on Linkedin called Reflections on a Decade of Digital Transformation. Three days later the World Health Organisation issued a Global Health Emergency, ushering in the COVID era.
Now, as we close in on the third year of the pandemic, he spoke to Digital Nation about the characteristics of the companies that successfully throttled up innovation, supported by digital acceleration.
Bonnet stressed the importance of leveraging collaboration tools, scaling them successfully across the enterprise and delivering organisational innovation.
"So how do you get more autonomy within your teams? How do you get cross-functional activity happening? And of course, all of these became paramount during the pandemic, because that was the only game in town,” says Bonnet.
Three key phases
Three things hit us in the face when COVID arrived, he says.
"Phase one was the adoption of technology tools, which was always a problem in a traditional organisation, at least during digital transformation. The second one was skilling, you know, just how do we get people to have the abilities and the literacy to actually use these tools efficiently. And then the third one was innovation."
"If we take them in sequence, I think the adoption was really a positive — if we could see a positive impact of the pandemic — it was really a positive at least for digital transformation because things that we were struggling to get workers and workforce to adopt in the past was actually speeded up, because there was no choice."
There were always road warriors in companies who were comfortable using productivity tools but with COVID the adoption of these tools — think of Slack or Zoom — rocketed as employees shifted to work from home arrangements.
Two things aligned which led to success — these tools were already sufficiently mature and robust for the task, and second, after a decade of transformation, many organisations were equipped both technologically and culturally to move thousand and even tens of thousands of people online almost overnight.
Of course, not everyone was ready, and even those that were still faced significant challenges.
"Corporation really struggled to get everybody connected, for all sorts of reasons, mainly, IT reasons, but also security. You know, when you have 100,000, people suddenly connecting remotely, you can imagine the IT services group were under a lot of pressure."
The second area was skills.
"I remember the early days, we thought this was going to last for months, and then it was 'Oh, no, it's many months' and now we think this is a multi-year type of situation."
Reskilling has long been seen as core to digital transformation, says Bonnet who believed that finally, the opportunity had arrived to reskill workforces, at scale using productivity.
He says he was thinking "Now we've got the platform. And to some extent, workers have got the time and the connectivity to actually do that."
However, it didn't necessarily work out like that. "There I saw a real gap. [Some] Corporations really jumped on the bandwagon and said okay, let's really work now on providing our workforces with the tools they need to really re-educate and re-skill themselves. And other corporations really missing the whole opportunity, which was huge to get people to understand that work and learning is the same thing today in this particular world."
It is often said that evolution thrives at the margin, and according to Bonnet the same is true of innovation. The very absence of a game plan and the constraints of business as usual fuelled innovation, he told Digital Nation. "Under constraints, people tend to be more
“Human ingenuity is actually quite amazing when we face constraints,” he says. “To some extent, a lack of corporate rules unleashed a whole part of creativity. And so for me, the question as an academic is, okay, how can we institute that when we go back to normal, whatever normal is going to look like?”
He also said that for some organisations, business as usual didn't really change except to the extent that it shifted from a physical world to a digital world.
People rediscovered their autonomy during the pandemic, he says, whereas formerly this is something that was constrained in the office environment.
"So to some extent, a lack of corporate rules unleashed a whole pile of creativity."
"So for me, the question as an academic is, okay, can we institute that when we go back to normal, whatever normal is going to look like?"
Credit: The video was produced by Josh Lundberg and Matthew Ryan