Whether companies were ready or not, the Coronavirus without doubt forced many of them, some for the first time, into the use of digital collaborative software and thus the digital world, says futurist and technology strategist Louis Fourie.
Whether companies were ready or not, the Coronavirus without doubt forced many of them, some for the first time, into the use of digital collaborative software and thus the digital world, says futurist and technology strategist Louis Fourie.

Tech News: Accelerated digital transformation of businesses

By Louis Fourie Time of article published Jun 5, 2020

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JOHANNESBURG - The world is straining under the weight of the global Covid-19 pandemic. Covid-19 and the subsequent isolation have shaken the core of societies, the business world and the economy throughout the world. 

Unfortunately, South Africa is no exception. Although somewhat later than Europe the global catastrophe has also hit South Africa and the number of infections is still on the rise.

Many businesses had to close down during the lockdown announced by government. Some businesses permanently closed their doors, and about 1.8 million people lost their work and income. Volatile industries such as the hospitality, travel and airline industries have experienced one of the most difficult times in history since World War II and were hard hit by the Coronavirus and government lockdown. 

But the old saying “every dark cloud has a silver lining” is also true of Covid-19. There is something positive that resulted from these very disturbing times. Suddenly millions of workers in South Africa had to start working from home and had to make use of digital collaboration tools to do their work and to stay in contact with their organisations. Companies had no choice but to rethink their strategies to keep their businesses running.

Data traffic in the telecommunication network increased exponentially, as companies started to interact virtually with their employees, customers, suppliers and stakeholders. A large number of people working from home used video-conferencing apps or other productivity platforms or software such as Zoom, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, Skype, Slack, Trello, WeChat, FaceTime, WhatsApp and numerous other apps, software, or platforms. 

The video-conferencing software company Zoom gained more active users in the months since the worldwide spread of Covid-19 than it did in the whole of 2019. 

The market research company AskAfrika found that 63 percent of South African participants indicated in week seven of the lockdown that they use video calling platforms such as WhatsApp, FaceTime and Skype more than in the past.

Many companies and their employees proved undeniably that they are adaptable and could quickly adapt to working, communicating and even thriving via digital means under strict lockdown regulations. 

The AskAfrika market research found that 71 percent of employees indicated that they would do whatever they can to ensure their employer stays in business. This can partly be attributed to the positive attitude of employees, but also to ensure job security.

Many businesses took their operation online in record time and were up and running at (near) full capacity in a matter of weeks after the lockdown started on midnight March 26. 

Admittedly, many of those who were fast out of the blocks had already for the one or other reason invested in remote infrastructure and had a higher level of digital readiness. However, many employees still had to learn how to use collaborative digital technology - skills that will prove valuable in the future as businesses increasingly become digital.

Whether it is virtual marketing meetings, virtual meetings with customers, virtual board meetings, or merely logging important internal work on time through the Internet, this forced utilisation of digital systems - often outside the established business practices - was incredibly disruptive for many companies and perhaps forever changed the way business is done.

Whether companies were ready or not, the Coronavirus without doubt forced many of them, some for the first time, into the use of digital collaborative software and thus the digital world. 

It was not an easy transition for many as the market research by AskAfrika indicated that Internet speed and connections were very unsatisfactory during the first six weeks of the lockdown. 

Week seven has seen some improvement, but still 43 percent of respondents claimed that they experienced slow Internet speeds throughout the day, while 45 percent complained about an inconsistent Internet connection. 

A total of 26 percent experienced difficulties with making outgoing calls and receiving incoming calls.

Constant dropped calls were mentioned by 28 percent. Thus, although an improvement on previous weeks of the lockdown can be seen, the current state of telecommunications and the Internet is a severe impeding factor on running a business remotely and needs urgent attention.

However, the positive lesson from this challenging time is that companies, organisations and institutions have shown that they are capable of handling change, learning new ways to continue operating, collaborate cross-functionally, and serve customers under very difficult circumstances.

I believe that these skills learned by organisations due to the Covid-19 crisis are not only vital for the next crisis we may experience, but are vital for the future as the pressure of digital disruption, changing consumer behaviour, and even traffic congestion force organisations increasingly to digitally transform, work differently, and do business in a new way. The digitalisation of business will play an important part in future whether it is for virtual meetings, online marketing and sales, or the sharing of knowledge.

What we are experiencing at the moment is the digital convergence that many academics and digital experts theorised would be arriving only in the next decade or so.  The digitalisation of organisations was accelerated by an unexpected crisis that became a catalyst for a sudden and mass shift to the digital-based remote running of organisations.

But one thing is for sure. During the crisis we have been building the foundations for the digital transformation of organisations. Organisations have proven that they can continue running their businesses, communicate effectively, maintain employee productivity, and build relationships with digital interfacing and collaboration tools. Although organisations were forced into digital operation by the Covid-19 crisis and therefore may feel the need to return to “normal”, many organisations already indicated that they will be continuing to allow employees to work from home. Due to the success of online meetings, the cost effectiveness, and time saving, it is also quite possible that employees will do less travelling by road and air to attend physical meetings and will conduct more virtual meetings.

Case studies indicated that many businesses found team collaboration is much more effective with digital interfacing. Instead of meeting in a conference room, team members connect via Zoom, Microsoft Teams or Google Meet and the meeting commences no matter where they are geographically at that given moment. And the software has added benefits such as the possibility to record the meeting for minuting purposes.

Building relationships with prospective clients and customers, as well as quoting for work and fulfilling orders have been completely revolutionised now that employees developed the skills and possess the necessary digital infrastructure to engage with customers and do business anywhere around the globe.

Even the Information Technology Department of organisations can run customer support and do systems management from anywhere with the proper infrastructure, allowing employees flexibility with regard to the need for geographical proximity.

By the digitalisation of certain operations that are best suited to be run remotely, organisations could not only save costs, but could increase their efficiency significantly. However, some businesses will not have a choice but will have to transform digitally since their customers migrated to the online world. 

AskAfrika, for instance, found in their market research during week seven of the lockdown that 51 percent  of consumers will change their shopping behaviour after lockdown. Many will continue with the convenience of online shopping and delivery.

Many of the changes that happened within organisations due to Covid-19 and the subsequent lockdown will probably become permanent since the value of digital channels, products and operations has become obvious to most organisations. 

The pandemic has substantially influenced the way companies are doing business and manage their people. A future without these collaborative digital technologies is unthinkable. As digital technologies and digital transformation become increasingly important in the future, only companies that adapt to the disruptive changes in business and embrace digital transformation will survive.

Professor Louis CH Fourie is a futurist and technology strategist  [email protected]

BUSINESS REPORT 

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