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17 Feb 2021

What can corporates learn from digital transformation in the COVID era?

What can corporates learn from digital transformation in the COVID era?

Since the turn of the millennium, the buzzword “digital transformation” has been thrown around by companies pledging to digitise their operations and bring their organisation into the future. Often, the grand plans companies resorted to were resource intensive and took years to complete – the result being that gaping holes emerged once these incentives were delivered, with numerous business needs left un-addressed. That was of course, until the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020.

The new normal

Over the course of the past year, businesses across all sectors have faced the daunting task of reinventing themselves to fit the “new normal”. Meanwhile, social distancing measures and reduced budgets have meant that companies have, in many cases, had to do a lot more with less.

In spite of it all, big businesses have realised that the need for digital reinvention isn’t going away any time soon. In fact, it is more necessary than ever that new initiatives are delivered at pace, so that corporations avoid the fate of being shifted out in favour of smaller and more nimble organisations.

Thankfully, according to new research commissioned by Studio Graphene, more than half (58%) of UK businesses agree that COVID-19 has encouraged them to overhaul the way they adopt and use new technologies. Among the bigger companies surveyed (those with over 250 employees), the overwhelming majority – 66% – said that this was true for their organisation, and that the pandemic has been a vital turning point for their digital innovation strategies.

Looking ahead to 2021, large businesses would do well to reflect on the progress made over the past year, to determine how they can effectively leverage new tech in the coming months…

Large corporations should think smaller on digital transformation

To say that bigger companies should start thinking smaller when it comes to their digital initiatives, is not to say that their plans shouldn’t be ambitious. However, large organisations should learn from the practices of startups and SMES, and start implementing new tech based on iterative design.

Large businesses tend to struggle more when it comes to scaling pilots successfully. Normally, when laying out plans for large-scale digital transformation projects, these organisations default to long-term, sequential, and overly formal processes in order to avoid risk. It makes sense, that with so much money at stake, business leaders would want their implementation schedules to be carefully thought-out and designed to the letter. However, this can actually be detrimental to the delivery of genuinely effective IT projects.

Rigid implementation schedules don’t necessarily take into account problems that might arise along the way, and plans made at beginning of the project can quickly become outdated as new trends develop. The current climate should be evidence enough that this is the case.

Throughout the coronavirus crisis, businesses are reflecting on the error of their ways, and many are planning to swap out red tape and bureaucracy in favour of more agile development plans.

UK business leaders agree

According to the aforementioned Studio Graphene survey, nearly half (49%) of UK business leaders agree that the pandemic has exposed weaknesses within their business’ IT infrastructure and digital processes. Interestingly, this figure rises to 59% among the larger businesses surveyed.

To combat this, 58% of corporates stated that the pandemic has encouraged them to overhaul the way they adopt and use new technologies. For some, this will involve a shift in mindset when evaluating IT projects, with almost two-thirds (60%) admitting that COVID-19 has encouraged their business to now measure the success of an IT project through its impact on the employee or customer experience, rather than through its return on investment.

Implementing new tech

Further to this, I would advise that businesses start implementing new tech gradually, rather than taking an “all at once” approach. Working in bursts would be a positive start, commencing projects with the incubation of new ideas, before moving through the design of potential solutions and then on to deployment and scaling. In any case, teams should be able to react on the fly and make any adjustments needed to ensure that the final project is as genuinely useful as it is comprehensive.

What’s more, this should enable companies to communicate more effectively with end-users, rather than keeping conversations between those in management, who are less likely to benefit from the tech when it is eventually in place. This way, even when mistakes do naturally crop up, they are not treated as blemishes to the success of the project, or even obstacles: they are considered valuable learning experiences. Organisations should increasingly be fostering a company culture that values experimentation and carefully measured risk-taking. After all, the most ground-breaking tech was never built by playing it safe.

Digital transformation can be a collaborative effort

Another positive takeaway for larger companies willing to learn when it comes to ramping up their digital capabilities would be to collaborate directly with smaller enterprises, as well as taking inspiration from them. In many cases, for instance, big businesses would stand to benefit from looking to SMEs for help with the creation and roll-out of new technologies, rather than relying exclusively on large vendors. By design, smaller teams are generally able to innovate faster and cheaper.  

To foster enhanced problem-solving, businesses should similarly broaden the pool of expertise and take in as many outside opinions as possible. Not only will this allow business leaders to fully unpack a number of possible solutions to a problem, it should also help them to tap into the startup mentality. By inviting external expertise, businesses can directly observe and work alongside smaller companies that benefit from leaner attitudes towards innovation.

Fortunately, organisations are beginning to take this on board, and when surveyed, the majority (60%) stated that they planned to enlist the support of third parties to support their digital initiatives in the next twelve months.

Digital change

Ultimately, the concept of digital change has never been more relevant or timely than now, and it is heartening to see that businesses of all sizes are finally seeing the value that innovation has to offer their organisation. In the face of crises, businesses can no longer rest on the laurels of long-term schemes and rigid structures. For digital transformation, flexibility is key, and I look forward to seeing the many success stories that emerge from this period.


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