In a ‘4-speed’ economy, how are businesses harnessing technology to drive growth?

“The future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed,” according to American-Canadian author and essayist William Gibson. The same could be said about the global pandemic: It’s here, but depending on where you live, the sector in which you work, and how far your organisation has progressed with its digital transformation efforts, neither the pandemic nor its recovery are evenly distributed.

The immediate impact of the pandemic has been to put the handbrake on entire sectors of the economy while accelerating others, according to Scott Rigby, head of digital transformation at Adobe Asia Pacific. Companies’ own experiences during this time have been driving a range of creative approaches to digitisation and recovery.

“I refer to it as a four-speed economy,” Rigby says.

Based on his observations throughout the APAC region, entire sectors have been cast into one of the following categories:

Broadly, there’s an increased focus on efficiency, simplification, and a push to better understand customer data to enable increased personalisation, Rigby says.

“In a lot of cases, there’s legacy technology that businesses have been trying to retire, and COVID has provided the opportunity to do that – particularly in sectors that have been upended,” he says.

Some organisations, driven by CIOs with newly expanded and urgent remits to transform workplaces, e-commerce platforms, and data utility are seeing technology through a creative lens, turning to innovation to reskill workforces, reimagine service delivery, and spark or drive growth.

Companies are advised to err on the side of innovation, according to Forrester Research. Its CIO predictions report for 2020 recommends CIOs “help their firms transform customer and employee experiences, leverage digital without becoming a slave to technology, and harness the explosive power of ecosystems for innovation, disruption, and growth”.

Back to basics

So in a four-speed economy, how are businesses using technology to drive growth?

Many that have been disrupted by the pandemic are taking a back-to-basics approach, simplifying their tech stack structure, and eliminating costs while they look to make it through full or partial sector shutdowns.

“A lot of organisations have had no choice but to focus on surviving immediate threats,” says Event Horizon Strategies co-founder Peter Scoblic, whose firm helps companies plan for the future in unpredictable situations. “There are no futurists in foxholes.”

This is certainly true for companies in the tourism and travel sectors, which have been among the hardest hit. Nevertheless, some players are using this period to drive innovation.

According to Ravinder Pal Singh, chief information and innovation officer of Indian airline Vistara, his agenda includes making technology Vistara’s differentiator and instituting a “culture of creativity with courage.”

“The central idea is to deliver an unmatched travel experience to our customers and to optimise processes and operations,” Singh says. “We are continuing to invest in cutting-edge technology, mainly in three areas – AI, robotics, and data science – with a significant emphasis on customers.”

The full-service airline is looking to improve operational efficiency by adopting more intelligent, sustainable, and cost-effective ways of doing routine jobs, according to Singh. That includes the creation of RADA, a robot designed to assist travellers at airports by scanning boarding passes, entertain, and make flight-related announcements.

“About 51% of what we do over the next 15 years is going to be augmented by creative tech,” says Rigby, citing research from AI-based analytics platform Faethm. “That will mean repetitive tasks will be replaced by technology, freeing you up to do higher-order, higher-value things.”

Customer Focus Continues

Despite their own business challenges amid the pandemic, many organisations continue to prioritise supporting their customers through their equally difficult times. In the banking industry, for example, Westpac’s digital transformation has included assembling the technology that enables it to personalise online customer experiences without overburdening employees. The team set up a dedicated COVID-19 support hub with a chatbot to help respond to more than 300,000 requests for help from customers.

“With personalisation, the challenge is how to use real-time data to make our experiences more relevant to customers when they need our help,” says Chris Thomas, senior manager for personalisation enablement at Westpac. “However, to ensure ROI we also need to ensure our employee experience is efficient and engaging, enabling our personalisation program to scale.”

According to Thomas, online sales have spiked with the ability to dynamically display content tailored to each customer, initially jumping 54% and, thanks to further scaling and optimisation, growing by 159%. In turn, the amount of time employees spend creating and managing that content decreased by 75%.

Remote work platforms and reskilling are another focus area in financial services. According to Steve Day, NAB’s executive general manager of cloud and workplace infrastructure, 96% – or about 25,000 – of the bank’s office-based employees are now working from home, including call centre staff.

“While we have been building the remote working capability for some time, we have ramped up this capability significantly over the past few weeks,” he says. The bank is also reskilling staff to work digitally with customers, rather than in person at branches.

At UBS, the bank has embraced a digital learning curriculum implemented last year to clock up more than 45,000 training hours in disciplines such as AI, blockchain, and cloud technologies.

Pandemic-Driven Demand

In sectors that are experiencing increases in demand due to the pandemic, significant resources are being dedicated for developing new service delivery models and the smarter use of customer data.

For example, Walmart’s US e-commerce sales surged as people panic-bought groceries and home appliances, and it expanded its grocery pick-up and delivery time slots to help meet consumer demand. The retail giant also built out it OneWalmart intranet, servicing more than 2 million employees by providing employee information and operational updates, such as office closures and store policies.

Similarly, earlier this year bicycle retailer 99 Bikes found itself at the nexus of several trends: the growth of e-commerce following stay-at-home orders, a growing desire for “clean” modes of transport, and the increased risks (due to COVID-19) of travelling on public transport and exercising in close proximity to others. These led to unprecedented online demand for its bikes, with website traffic and monthly revenues doubling almost overnight.

“COVID-19 made it clear that we need to focus on the basics, not being distracted by bells and whistles,” says 99 Bikes digital leader Owen McLeod. “That means directing traffic to the website, making sure product descriptions are compelling, removing the friction from online purchases, and providing great customer service if things go wrong.”

Regardless of the level of impact the pandemic is having across organizations and industries, IT leaders are meeting the challenges with a combination of creativity and common sense.

“CIOs will get a chance to step forward as business leaders, further developing their tech-driven innovation, people management, and ecosystem-building skills,” the Forrester report states.