A singular challenge during crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic is a tendency to focus on current problems while letting longer term issues take care of themselves. That point is entirely understandable; it’s clearly wise to focus on doing all you can today to stay healthy and alive, but doing so risks missing or slighting future opportunities.
In addition, focusing on returning to a “normal” that looks pretty much like the world did before COVID-19 turned the world upside down is shortsighted. Why? Besides the dangers of igniting a second wave of infections, the longer the dislocation of the pandemic continues the more likely that processes, practices, services and behaviors will be considerably different than they used to be.
There is still time to meaningfully consider what the world might or will look like after the crisis passes. In fact, Jeff Clarke, Dell Technologies COO and vice chairman, recently posted a blog that captures his perspectives on the “new normal” and how people and organizations can adapt to those challenges and opportunities.
Four acceleration points
Clarke’s entire post is worth reading and considering, but for the sake of brevity, these are the four major acceleration points that he believes the COVID-19 pandemic has sparked:
- We’ll have a larger remote workforce, expanding talent pools and reducing environmental impact. The debate on whether a large remote workforce can be productive is over. We’re learning that it’s not only possible, it’s successful. This will vary across organizations and industries, notably in jobs where being on-site and on the front lines is a requirement, but post-pandemic, upwards of 50% of the professional workforce will work remotely.
- Global supply chains will undergo rapid transformation—diverse, resilient and digital. During the last couple of months, companies found their supply chains weren’t as global and local as they needed to be. As importantly, there was a wakeup call on how transparent and secure the end-to-end supply chain truly is.
- The 4th industrial revolution will arrive faster and gives us a path to economic recovery. The fourth industrial revolution—where data enables breakthroughs in AI and automation to deliver autonomous machines, connected cities—has been discussed for a while. Now, we’re on an accelerated timeline. Organizations able to adapt and evolve will survive and come out stronger. I see technology as a key path to economic recovery.
- Health care and education will transform to have the greatest impact on society if we get it right. Digital transformation means positive changes for healthcare and education, creating the ability to reach everyone to close skills gaps and prepare the workforce of the future. The challenge? There are still parts of our country and the world that are in need of network bandwidth and support at scale.
These are all intriguing issues, so let’s consider them in order.
Clarke’s comments about the expansion of remote workforce options and policies are spot-on, both in terms of its value and the requirements necessary for successful execution. Dell has been a bellwether for such practices; prior to the pandemic, nearly two-thirds of the company’s employees were taking advantage of its flexible work policies, with about 30% working from home (WFH) on any given day. Currently, more than 90% of Dell employees are doing so.
But the company has been an exception. While much of the tech industry has long touted flexible working practices, few have adopted them as forcefully or successfully as Dell. Clarke says that for most companies, about 20% of employees work remotely, but it’s important to note that many organizations have few, if any, provisions for these policies, and that some actively discourage remote workers.
I agree with Clarke about the benefits WFH policies provide, as well as his points about best methodologies for achieving them. However, pursuing and gaining those benefits also require companies to examine and actively evolve their cultures—a process that many will find challenging in the extreme.
How about Clarke’s thoughts on global supply chain resiliency? Again, I find his arguments compelling. That may be because Dell’s remarkable success has, since its beginnings, been predicated on building and maintaining one of the industry’s most effective supply chains, efficient manufacturing organizations and dynamic partner ecosystems. His points about the value of leveraging data points and predictive analytics to enhance planning, delivery, procurement, manufacturing and warehousing were also insightful.
Overall, I agree with Clarke’s conclusion about the core importance of resiliency in meeting customer needs. But it’s also worth noting the degree to which global commerce and business partnerships have become political footballs during the COVID-19 crisis. That’s likely related to the U.S. presidential campaign, in which case the rhetoric may ratchet down in 2021. Let’s hope so. If not, the post-pandemic recovery is apt to be far harder than it might be otherwise, since it would require countless companies to rethink and retool the ways that they develop, source, make and deliver goods.
Faster-than-expected arrival of fourth industrial revolution
How about the faster arrival and accelerated value proposition of the fourth industrial revolution? Clarke makes strong points about companies investing in secure, scalable IT resources to support high volumes of virtual online business. In fact, that generally describes the approach that retailers, including Amazon, Walmart, Costco and others have taken to adapt to the pandemic. It’s hardly a surprise that many other businesses are attempting to follow the path those market leaders have taken.
However, it’s worth mentioning that the benefits of the fourth industrial revolution are accruing more quickly and readily among enterprises than they are in small- to medium-sized businesses (SMBs). That mirrors historic trends, since enterprises are generally more able to plan and invest in digital business initiatives and equipment. We’re seeing a similar dynamic in the deployment of machine learning and artificial intelligence pilots and projects.
But a troubling point in our current crisis is in how SMBs are disproportionately suffering, with some analysts predicting that massive numbers of them will be crippled or fail outright as the pandemic continues. Considering the role of SMBs in creating new jobs and markets, that would be a critical loss. Like Clarke, I am “an optimist grounded in the realities of how (business) customers are thinking about what’s next.” But I also hope that Dell and other vendors are considering how to ensure that the 4th fourth industrial revolution benefits SMBs.
Finally, I agree with much of what Clarke has to say about the potential of evolutionary technologies in both health care and education, as well as his point that “gaps in the digital divide need to close” in order for that to happen. But at the same time, capturing those opportunities is likely to be difficult, at best.
Why so? First, because health care and education are extraordinarily complex, highly regulated sectors that are resistant to systemic change. This is not surprising since the ecosystems of both span public and private sectors, local, state, and Federal government agencies, numerous professional organizations and thousands of goods and service suppliers. Building consensus among such diverse stakeholders has always been challenging in the extreme.
In addition, the “digital divide” separating urban and suburban areas from rural and poorer communities —which people have been discussing in one way or another since the mid-1990s—seems likely to continue, at least in the U.S. Why so? Because providing the solutions needed to deliver consistent, high-quality online and telecom services for all would require significant infrastructure investments and government stimulus efforts that the current administration and many in Congress will not support or even seriously consider.
Room for optimism
However, it seems to me that there is room for optimism. COVID-19 has inspired tens of thousands of individuals and organizations in healthcare and education to successfully experiment with new and often unfamiliar tools to support the students and patients under their care. Though the current impasse and lack of will at the federal level is disheartening, it is hardly written in stone, especially in an election year where anything can happen (and seems to, on a daily or even hourly basis).
Overall, Clarke’s blog and the “acceleration points” he calls out point to massive benefits that might be captured and opportunities that may be achieved. No one says it will be easy, but if we can find a way forward, the New Normal could inspire a far better future for millions of organizations and billions of people.
Charles King is a principal analyst at PUND-IT and a regular contributor to eWEEK. © 2019 Pund-IT, Inc. All rights reserved.