Uncertainty in a Time of Crisis
Published in Nov-Dec 2020
Constant technological disruptions, fluid geopolitics and economic shifts in changing global scenarios have challenged decision-making and planning for decades. The continuous change is compounded by the interconnectedness of people, institutions and society which create unpredictable disruptions – good and bad. I focused on this in my article titled Life in Beta, published in Aurora a few months prior to Covid-19. The pandemic, however, is an exception in the scale of impact and complexity without a parallel reference in recent times. It has further accentuated the need to embrace the uncertainty in conducting business and making decisions. There are several ways in which organisations can manage it.
Agility, Focus, Convergence
Organisations need to reassess the way they are structured, managed and operated. While there is a need for flexibility within the organisation, it is important to ring-fence the parameters for change within the defined purpose. New opportunities appear to decision-makers like shiny objects and saying no is even more critical than saying yes. Convergence enables actions through the sharing of information and collaboration and drives the process that guides action. This type of thinking is as much culture as it is structure. It needs to be embraced at the core of the company. In his article in the International C2 Journal (Vol. 1, No. 1, 2007), David S. Alberts, in reference to shift in warfare, describes this best: “Agility is the critical capability that organisations need to meet the challenges of complexity and uncertainty; focus provides the context and defines the purposes of the endeavour; convergence is the goal-seeking process that guides actions and effects.”
An example illustrated in the same article suggests how to shift from a Command and Control (C2) driven organisation to an Edge Organisation through the distribution of information, patterns of interaction between people/divisions/institutions and the empowerment to make decisions. Many new technology-driven organisations through their networked, collaborative model have already made the shift. Legacy cultures need to embrace this new reality to compete in the Information Age.
Information is critical and its pervasiveness within the organisation determines how quickly it is processed and available for decision-making. In times of crisis with no precedence, information drives effective scenario planning and refinement. It helps to reduce the risk of choices which need to be made. Companies which have leveraged technology to develop a direct relationship with their customers are in an ideal position. In the early days of Amazon, the company used to face criticism for investing in acquiring customers at a loss. Today, the strategy stands vindicated. Data has been touted as the new oil but contextualising it to drive insights is the critical ‘refinery’ process which makes the data actionable. It helps understand and influence customers who have been at the core of marketing and branding since inception. Technology has enabled brands to become closer to their customers by collecting, analysing and using first-party data to innovate and personalise products and experiences. And customers have been willing to share their habits and behaviour in exchange for the utility they receive. To use this privilege effectively, a culture of experimentation needs to exist for testing and learning. Those who have embraced this approach are intrinsically managing uncertainty all the time through iterative development processes. Digital allows for unprecedented tracking and use of data to tailor experiences in real-time.
For some industries, Covid-19 has changed how companies and consumers operate. Professional services have been able to take advantage of WFH in light of restrictions on travel and physical interaction. Digital transformations have been expedited to embrace the ‘new normal’. According to a recent survey of business executives around the world conducted by McKinsey, “85% of respondents said their businesses have somewhat or greatly accelerated the implementation of technologies that digitally enable employee interaction and collaboration, such as video conferencing and file sharing. Roughly half of those surveyed reported increasing digitisation of customer channels; for example, via e-commerce, mobile apps, or chat-bots. Some 35% have further digitised their supply chains, for example, by connecting their suppliers with digital platforms in supply chain management.” Some changes are ephemeral while others are structural. The survey findings indicate that across all sectors, “15% of executives surveyed amid the pandemic said at least one-tenth of their employees could work remotely two or more days a week going forward, almost double the eight percent of respondents who expressed that intention before Covid-19.”
A structural change which organisations need to build in (if they do not already have it) is investment in learning and development. The World Economic Forum recently declared a “re-skilling emergency”, as the world faces more than one billion jobs transformed by technology. It is now even more pressing given the acceleration in digital transformation. Low-cost labour is no longer a sustainable competitive advantage as automation substitutes processes. Quality and innovation are needed to compete. The pandemic has made it more urgent to build skills to keep up with the transformation or manage new ways of working. Both executives and employees must continually refresh their skills. Learning is not just the responsibility of the organisation, it is also incumbent on employees to take the initiative for their growth and job security. The drive for self-learning is a critical driver of future success. Companies can help inculcate it through an environment fostering curiosity and experimentation. Effective learners actively seek to learn and experience new ideas. They plan their learning.
The pandemic has severely impacted economies. Businesses that have survived, particularly traditional ones, have seen their margins and cash flows erode quickly. In such situations, companies that kept reserves are better able to manage the pressure and take advantage by investing in new opportunities. They have also been able to accommodate customers who were adversely affected by accepting longer payment cycles. The framework in Figure 1 by Deloitte demonstrates the various positions a company can find itself based on the impact of a crisis like Covid-19 on their business vis-à-vis its liquidity.
In a crisis, businesses need to quickly assess their position, simulate scenarios, make decisions and implement quickly. And constantly update the scenarios as new information comes in. In the process, they need to involve multiple stakeholders to get diverse perspectives as crises, such as Covid-19, have many unknowns. But always make decisions.
“In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing and the worst thing you can do is nothing.” – Theodore Roosevelt, 26th President of the USA.
Amin Rammal is Director, Asiatic Public Relations. firstname.lastname@example.org
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