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Business resilience in times of crisis
Andy Packham SVP and Head of HCL Microsoft Business Unit | April 29, 2020
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The impact of the COVID-19 or Corona virus pandemic has shocked the world. Within a few months, it has completely disrupted the way people live and work. Endangering millions, if not billions of lives, it is making us question the way we live. Despite its effects on business and trade, we must remember that it is first and foremost a humanitarian crisis. The unfortunate reality however is simple – in the modern world, the capacity to face crisis is rooted in the resilience of our economic and social systems.

The Corona virus crisis has in fact left an indelible mark on the economic fate of nearly every nation, raising questions about the future of their people. Even large, matured, and developed economies are expecting a fall of about 3.5% to 5.4% in the first half of 2020 alone, losing nearly 2.4% of GDP over the course of the year. Even China, one of the world’s consistently growing nations, reported its first decline in growth rate in 44-years.

In this challenging journey, we can surmise that businesses will play a significant role in rebuilding lost strength and resilience. In fact, the ability of businesses to rapidly adapt to these dramatically new circumstances will prove critical in supporting and saving the lives of millions of workers worldwide. It's important to remember that economic revival is crucial in helping deal with the aftermath of any crisis.  There is both anxiety and fear in the world, however there is also hope.

In a recent survey by PwC, over 75% of respondents expressed confidence and optimism that their organizations would regain normalcy within a quarter after the end of this crisis. We are in an unprecedented situation, unlike any before in our modern, digital, 21st-century world. There is no playbook to consult and no past experience to draw upon. We have only ourselves and our capacity for determined, level-headed, and informed decision making.

In a recent survey by PwC, over 75% of respondents expressed confidence and optimism that their organizations would regain normalcy within a quarter after the end of this crisis. Read the blog to know more.

But let’s not forget, for enterprises and institutions, the digital age has been all about overcoming disruption and managing volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA). And in each instance, we have proven successful, being led by the better angles of our innovative selves. These successes have shaped some of humankind’s greatest advancements, and even the failures have birthed lasting lessons.

In just the last 20-years, the world has overcome other major challenges – from geopolitical instability and terrorism to widespread natural calamities, and even in the current crisis, we have the determination and the intellectual resources to endure this as well. For enterprises, despite the specifics of any disaster, the traits of success have been the same; the ability to prioritize essential goals such as valuing people first and pursuing a path to sustainable growth.

With a clear focus, these organizations have been quick to adapt and transform themselves to bring value to the people. They have changed business models, embraced new technologies, and reimagined roadmaps to align with global needs. Innovation-driven adaptability, above all, is what constitutes business resilience in my book, and is the one singular attribute that will help organizations weather the Corona virus storm as well.

Discovering business resilience

Organizations with business resilience are agile, nimble, and responsive. They have the ability to tackle unexpected challenges (business, social, or environmental) and adapt accordingly. Businesses of every scale, from local stores, restaurants, and bars to global e-commerce platforms have swiftly transitioned to home delivery models and enacted zero-contact deliveries, respectively. Their responsiveness to disruption has allowed them to continue operations without risking the health of their customers and employees. Similarly, Formula 1 teams have shifted gears and retooled their lines to support the production of critical healthcare devices such as ventilators, in response to the government’s appeal for assistance.

And these transformations are transpiring globally, from the US to India to Japan, as thousands of companies of all sizes and across all sectors are changing their ways of working to endure the challenge. These companies have triggered their business continuity plans (BCPs), transitioning millions of employees to remote working set-ups, and enacting new operational processes like daily video conferences and on-cloud collaboration. But of course, this has been a challenge of its own as a 2019 survey revealed that an astounding 44% of global companies did not have a policy of remote work at all. Up until this crisis, of course. Clearly, the pandemic has impelled organizations to discover their inherent resilience and open themselves up to change.

The fact of the matter is simple - organizations are built on the capabilities of their people. But, BCPs have traditionally been focused on infrastructure and facilities, ensuring that like-for-like alternatives are quickly available. That is, data centers for data centers, factories to substitute factories, personnel to replace similarly-skilled personnel, and so on. COVID-19 has forced us to consider the question: what if access to these facilities becomes a challenge? What if human contact itself is prohibited? And, what if this happens on a global scale?

Here’s how organizations can be better prepared for such incidents in the future:

Agile infrastructure

Companies that adopt a cloud-first strategy will be well-placed to respond to global uncertainties in the future. Cloud infrastructure can be harnessed in two ways. The simpler and more common approach is to have scalable infrastructure to accommodate the rise and fall in demand. This is typically achieved through a strategic mix of public and private clouds, that is, the hybrid cloud. The more fundamental approach is to create platforms that can be managed and accessed from anywhere and at any time, and are flexible enough to be moved, developed, and scaled as per the business requirement. Businesses that moved most of their operations to the cloud early on have enjoyed relatively seamless transitions to a remote workforce model. Those that were not as proactive had to resort to hastily assembled transition plans.

Agile culture

Organizations that have long decision and approval cycles will find it difficult to respond quickly to opportunities as they appear. That is why DevOps is the key to building an agile culture. Strong inter-department collaboration, rapid prototyping, and release create an environment where responsiveness becomes second nature. Consider this, Microsoft created and released the first version of an enterprise crisis communication application in just 48 hours. The application allows employees and teams to communicate, share their status, collaborate, and coordinate any required actions in a way that’s both, highly effective and productivity-enhancing.

Agile collaboration

To create and sustain an agile work culture, collaboration tools are imperative. In dynamic or chaotic circumstances, managing and tracking activities and communicating in real time can become overwhelming. This, in turn, can lead to frequent deadlocks or shadow operations that take a toll on productivity. And while it has become commonplace for organizations to have a slew of collaboration tools, they still lack the critical element of collaborative thinking and workflow design. This is why enterprises need to focus on not just training their staff on technical aspects of using these tools but also creating a culture of collaboration that imbibes the holistic methods necessary to work in non-traditional work environments. Without educating your workforce about why and how to collaborate, these tools can never live up to their promised ROI, and will continue to be a burden on the IT budget.

Proactive IT

Enterprise IT teams should wean themselves off the idea that they are simply the facilitators or providers of turn-key, ready-made solutions. Instead, they need to think deeper about how they can add value to the organizations core business by enabling digital innovation and support frameworks across operations. For example, low-code application development platforms, such as PowerApps, allow business and IT teams to collaborate and create custom applications for unique requirements that can be addressed in-house. This can save organizations’ substantial amounts of time and resources that would otherwise be spent on cyclical software purchases, subscriptions, and payments to third-parties. Resources can instead be diverted towards managing the apps before they get too unwieldy.

Robust security

Today, organizations run on information. And with hundreds of breaches reported in the first quarter of 2020 alone, cybersecurity is a key area of focus. While a company may have near-impenetrable firewalls, exceptional times like ours (when providing a laptop to every employee is not possible due to constrained supply and excessive demand) call for extraordinary measures. ‘Bring your own device’ (BYOD) is often the only solution for many. But it need not be one that compromises security. Enterprises can simply deploy a cloud-based virtual desktop on all the devices in their network. This ensures enterprise-grade security for all business apps, whether they are hosted on a personal device or not.

Business leaders and decision-makers need to understand that when most of their global workforce is working from home, it is likely that employees will use the devices, applications, and channels they prefer and are comfortable with. So, rather than imposing restrictions that will be difficult to enforce, organizations need to actively support the use of a diverse range of tools with the best security mechanisms in place.

The rate of change now is more rapid than it has ever been in the past. So, it is very likely that frequent, unpredictable disruptions will need to be factored into business plans. Organizations need to maintain a healthy dose of pessimism and paranoia. This means that adaptability, resilience, and agility need to be inculcated as the core tenets of any future-proof business. It might be their only means to survival.