Let’s start out by saying thank you to the workers who haven’t yet seen the virtualization of their day-to-day. Certainly, frontline healthcare workers often must be with patients. And our supply chain—each package, ingredient and material sourced from around the world directly to us—is built on human effort that transcends virtual. There is a very long list of professionals and public servants to thank for their decidedly non-virtual efforts in this time.
The amazing efforts are enabling—and enabled by—new approaches to work and life, fueled by technology. Today on CNBC’s Squawk Box, Microsoft President Brad Smith spoke of how technology is powering a continuity in business that we could not have seen even 10 years ago, from data analysis of COVID-19, to business continuity in the cloud. Specifically, he mentioned the use of Microsoft Teams which is seeing unprecedented growth due to remote collaboration.
Coronavirus has challenged the way we live and do business, and in most cases, slowed things down. But could it be, that, with cloud-based technology and the forced virtualization of our world, this crisis has permanently sped things up? While 2020 will always be known for its health crisis, a very human tragedy, could it also be known as the true rise of the machines?
Or could it be that the challenge to connect, to sustain, and to continue, and the human innovative spirit to adapt has allowed us to leverage technology, capture lightning in a bottle, and install it in our business practices like never before?
This seems to be the case.
We are seeing a digital transformation like never before.
Steve Jobs famously compared computers to a bicycle - a mere tool that could help humans achieve great things. This supports the idea that humans should leverage automation to achieve a higher level of quality and output—not to replace time and effort.
Peter Thiel also talked about how technology complements human effort, enhancing our capabilities. In "Zero to One", he contrasted computers with lower cost labor, explaining that, while people can lose jobs to other people willing to work for less, computers can be used to create and enhance jobs.
As workers, we do see the Microsoft Teams example as quite clear. After all, videoconferences are the norm—it’s the most visible example of life and business in the cloud.
But the digital transformation will affect business in much more impactful ways that drive profitable growth through increased scale, lower variable costs and new capabilities.
Consider, for example, the medical practice that has added telemedicine, and its base of patients who, under normal circumstances would shun such technology. That business will be forever transformed.
Or consider the massive shift from in-person meetings and transactions to virtual and eCommerce. Consider the demands that puts on collaboration and presentation technology, CRM systems, ERP systems and the required content to drive understanding, such as video, 3D models and even augmented and virtual reality. Such transformation not only makes the world smaller as the in-person paradigm for big business evaporates, but it digitizes more interactions. It makes attributable the client interaction, closing the loop on everything from marketing to inventory, and to innovation.
Consider the impact of place on business. In America, we take pride in our manufacturing, and we debate the merits of the global supply chain. But there is no doubt that in a global logistical crisis, when supplies are short and conflict is bubbling, domestic manufacturing, additive manufacturing, 3D printing and other macro solutions at the micro level will become more attractive. Robotics can solve manufacturing and logistical challenges that humans cannot—especially in pandemic—but in a way that complements human effort, allowing us to achieve more. Mark Cuban recently said robotics should be one of the biggest winners of investment in our emergence from the coronavirus crisis. That’s the kind of innovation that will transform business and maintain our competitive edge.
And education. Nothing has seen transformation like education, where, for example our tree-lined college campuses have given way to digital transformation. Professors scrambled, this spring, to move online. No doubt these times favor the institutions who had already made great strides in digital transformation, but we’ve seen participation like never before in online learning, Learning Management Systems (LMS), and new educational models. The Higher Education market is riddled with debt and inflated prices, and the education world at large struggles for funding, innovation and ways to meet students’ needs. It is likely that the disruption of the status quo in 2020 is the education world’s graduation to a more commercially viable format. Whether this consolidates institutions and also disrupts revenue streams, causing financial strain, remains to be seen, but digital transformation has taken place in education, and it is here to stay.
Lastly, consider that the distributed workforce may actually be an advantage. America was built on the idea that centralization runs counter to our internal locus of control—our free will to participate in the economy, move freely and contribute our time as best we see fit. Mobile life, post-pandemic, will offer strength in fragmentation, agility through independence, and a new paradigm that drove mobile productivity competence to the farthest reaches of the diffusion of innovations. It would seem that B2B professionals in all five phases of the below diffusion of innovations graph have been required to adopt remote collaboration suites, videoconferencing and mobile technology, speeding up the pace of innovation and driving digital transformation much faster than previously anticipated.
Rogers Everett / Public domain
As we close, it’s important to recognize that not everyone has participated in the digital transformation of business, and disproportionately, it’s our frontline and essential workers. There is no doubt that this edition of digital transformation favors those outside the critical medical, infrastructure and logistical fields. But perhaps, in our transformation, new models arise. New cures and vaccines are discovered through digital transformation and better data. And a societal agility based on our new capabilities gives us not herd immunity in the medical sense, but herd adaptability in the technological sense.
Digital transformation has profound effects on profitability, scale and quality. Companies like Amazon have proven that. And on the macro level, a cultural shift to new models may yield a collective efficiency and offer capabilities beyond our imaginations. As we’ve pointed out, digital transformation is not an effort of machines alone, echoing the recent sentiment of Harvard Business Review that “Digital Transformation is Not About Technology.” But there is more than a little irony, and perhaps the greatest silver lining for B2B, in that these very human times brought us closer, through technology, making us stronger and more capable for the road ahead.